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Patagonia Won’t Save the World Without Addressing Some of Its Prior Failures

Yvon Chouinard’s decision to transfer ownership of the company to a trust and nonprofit has received glowing reviews. But the details matter. And Patagonia hasn’t always delivered on its promises of sustainability.

Yvon Chouinard sits while speaking.
Ben Gabbe/Getty Images for Tribeca X
Patagonia Founder Yvon Chouinard speaks onstage during the Inaugural Tribeca X at Spring Studios in New York City in 2019.

What should we make of Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard’s decision to transfer ownership of his company to a special trust and nonprofit dedicated to environmental values? It’s hard to say, given that the public hasn’t been given any details on the matter. Despite this information scarcity, people all over the world are applauding the decision, including the journalists who first reported it. When The New York Times published the exclusive on Wednesday, the deputy editor of its climate newsroom presented the story as a climate “scoop.” Nowhere in this tribute to Chouinard did anyone discuss Patagonia’s questionable “sustainability” initiatives in the past.

The New York Times exclusive, “Billionaire No More: Patagonia Founder Gives Away the Company, called Chouinard’s move “an unconventional spin on capitalism.” The 83-year-old was concerned, according to reporter David Gelles, that when he died the company might diverge from his environmental values. Now Patagonia’s “socially responsible business” approach will be guaranteed by the Patagonia Purpose Trust, while a separate nonprofit organization will “use the company’s profits to combat climate change.”

In a world ravaged by the climate crisis, with one-third of Pakistanis displaced by floods, the Amazon rain forest releasing more carbon dioxide than it absorbs, and carbon cowboys abusing Indigenous rights to get their hands on lucrative carbon credits, reporting one privileged man’s decision to donate the wealth he accrued over decades by running a for-profit business as a climate “scoop” is already murky territory. More worrisome still, however, is that the story didn’t mention any of the scrutiny Patagonia’s past initiatives have recently come under for misleading consumers over sustainability claims.

In June, I exposed how a network of for-profit and nonprofit organizations at the heart of the fashion industry was using fake data to promote fossil fuel–based materials as sustainable. Patagonia, partnering with Walmart in 2009, created and funded the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, which developed the dodgy database in question: the Higg Materials Sustainability Index. Critics of the Higg MSI claim it was created to greenwash fossil fuel manufacturing for the fashion industry, which depends on cheap synthetic fibers—allowing for massive profits, while masking the products’ true environmental costs. They all point to the fact that the Higg MSI rates polyester, a fiber derived from petroleum, as the most sustainable of all fibers. This is pretty convenient for companies that sell clothes, since polyester is also the cheapest fiber available.

How has fashion gotten away with claiming that cheap petroleum-based fibers are sustainable? Unlike its fossil fuel friends, the fashion industry appears to have gotten ahead of the sustainability problem first by acknowledging it, then by pumping tens of millions into developing its own gold standard for sustainability, creating a closed loop of shared stakeholders with nobody to hold them to account.

The world’s institutions—both brands and NGOs alike— welcomed the Higg MSI with open arms and little to no research. After partnering with the global NGO World Resources Institute, Higg Co., the for-profit selling the index, raised $50 million in funding in April this year, and its index full of dubious data became the accounting metric for New York’s Fashion Sustainability and Social Accountability Act. The legislation has not yet passed, but H&M is now being sued in New York for using Higg data to fleece customers with premium prices for “sustainable” clothes.

A few days after my investigation was published at The Intercept, The New York Times published a similar article, “How Fashion Giants Recast Plastic as Good for the Planet,” in which it identified Patagonia’s role in leading the organizations that have essentially rebranded petroleum-based fibers. It’s odd not to mention this context when reporting Chouinard’s decision to give the company to the fight against climate change.

Patagonia has had both successes and failures in terms of sustainability. But instead of presenting those side by side, the piece paints both Chouinard and Patagonia as pioneers of sustainability and generosity. “By giving away the bulk of their assets during their lifetime, the Chouinards …,” Gelles writes, “have established themselves as among the most charitable families in the country.” Elsewhere the piece praises Patagonia as “an early adopter of everything from organic cotton to on-site child care,” and notes that Chouinard doesn’t own a computer and “wears raggedy old clothes, drives a beat up Subaru and splits his time between modest homes in Ventura and Jackson, Wyo.”

Celebrating Chouinard’s low-key lifestyle in one paragraph while trumpeting capitalism as the world’s solution to the climate crisis is questionable, and feeds into the rhetoric created by the fossil fuel industry that emphasizes individual change over systemic reform. Focusing on Chouinard’s personal attributes, rather than asking how the new trust will ensure prior mistakes are not repeated, skews the narrative. Likewise, quotes from Chouinard saying he hopes his move promotes “a new form of capitalism that doesn’t end up with a few rich people and a bunch of poor people,” land poorly in a piece that ignores the economic system and neo-imperial globalization that has allowed Americans like Chouinard to amass billions in the first place.

The message this kind of reporting sends is that billionaires could save us from ourselves if only more of them had the Patagonia spirit. Yet given the raw data on billionaires’ emissions, it’s clear that far more people need to be saved from billionaires than are saved by them. And the society as a whole needs to be saved from the grip their mythology has on our cultural narratives.

Yes, it is critically important to encourage billionaires to redistribute their wealth, but it is equally important to critique claims of authoritative magnanimity in the process. Failure to do so donates collective power to the select individuals who have enough power to wield, often at the expense of the vulnerable.

Who will run this trust? Will it have scientific experts on payroll? Which experts? Which data will be used to decide how to fight climate change? And what will the trust do in the face of overwhelming evidence that economic growth is driving environmental destruction? These are the kinds of questions we need to ask when hearing that Patagonia’s founder has created a trust he thinks will help the world. Without those questions, we’re left with only a P.R. piece promoting a capitalist future at the expense of us all—from frontline climate communities to factory workers hunched over polyester patterns, far from billionaire sight.