At the age of 14, Yvon Chouinard discovered his passion for climbing. He and his friends would hop on freight trains to the sandstone cliffs of Stoney Point in Southern California’s San Fernando Valley where they would climb and rappel down rocks. In 1957, Chouinard began making reusable chrome-molybdenum steel climbing pitons himself to replace iron pitons that could be placed only once into rock. Chouinard’s innovative, reusable steel pitons became popular amongst his fellow climbers as they didn’t have to be left behind in the rock. This would be the beginnings of Chouinard Equipment.
Over many years Chouinard would sell his equipment out of the back of his car while travelling in Wyoming, Yosemite, and the Swiss Alps. By 1970, Chouinard Equipment had become the largest supplier of climbing equipment in the United States. About that same time climbers were recognizing the damage being done on regularly traveled routes at popular rock faces in Yosemite and elsewhere. After enduring repeated hammering of pitons during both placement and removal, the damage was becoming severe. After an ascent of one of Yosemite’s most popular faces, Chouinard and a friend made the decision to phase out of the piton business altogether – the first big environmental step they would take over the years. As an alternative, they moved to aluminum chocks that could be wedged by hand rather than hammered in and out of rock cracks. Though a huge business risk as pitons were still the mainstay of their business, they concluded it had to be done in favor of environmental soundness.
In 1972, they introduced the aluminum chocks in the first Chouinard Equipment catalog, which opened up with an editorial from the owners on the environmental hazards of pitons. They also started selling clothing and renamed the company “Patagonia”, inspired by the mountain range in Argentina. In 1990, Patagonia transitioned to using only organic cotton. Over the years, Patagonia has regularly supported grassroots efforts focused on the environment. Every year since 1988 they have also undertaken a major education campaign on an environmental issue. Using recycled content for almost everything they do, they have made environmental responsibility a key element of everyone’s job at Patagonia.
Today, the company is not only successful because of its annual profit but also due to its environmental contributions. Far above corporate gain, Chouinard’s purpose has always been to create a business that would motivate others to become more aware of environmental issues. His friend Tompkins Buell said, “Whatever he’s wanted to do, he’s done because he believes in it. He believes in challenging himself…”
3 lessons we can learn from Yvon Chouinard’s journey to success:
1. You can thoroughly enjoy what you’re passionate about and change the world around you for the better at the same time!
Yvon pursued his passion and talent while at the same time building something that makes a lasting difference. His story provides the ideal template – how he parlayed his love for climbing into creating a successful business and making environmental contributions at every step along the way.
2. You can define your own success by achieving what you believe in!
In the corporate world, success tends to be defined by how much money an individual or company earns. Chouinard chose to define his success by helping make a difference for the environment, and he achieved business success as a by-product along the way too.
3. Starting small with simplicity and quality builds the right foundation for the long run!
Patagonia started with founder Yvon Chouinard selling innovative and useful homemade climbing equipment and tools out of the back of his car for several years. Just 13 years later he had built a very successful outdoor clothing and climbing gear company.
After reading this, if you’re in the climbing mood and want to do good at the same time, join in the Downtown Drop Down 2017, an urban adventure fundraiser on September 8 and 9, 2017 in San Jose, CA. With a goal of raising $275,000 in support of rebuilding the lives of people experiencing homelessness, this exciting event allows you to raise funds in exchange for the chance to rappel from the top of the Adobe Headquarters building in downtown San Jose!