In a rare and surprising piece of good news for the sustainable fashion movement, this week the outdoor clothing brand Patagonia announced a precedent-setting decision. The brand’s founder, 83-year-old Yvon Chouinard, is donating the $3 billion company to two environmental organisations. “Earth is now our only shareholder,” began Chouinard in a statement released this week.
What this means is that 98 per cent of Patagonia shares will go to the Holdfast Collective, a newly formed not-for-profit that will invest in the protection of nature, biodiversity and communities. All of the shares will be non-voting, which means that the collective will have no input into how Patagonia is run. The remaining 2 per cent will go into the Patagonia Purpose Trust, which will be run by members of the Chouinard family to ensure that the brand continues to operate with the mission and values it set out almost 50 years ago. The family, which previously earned about $100 million in profits each year, will no longer receive that money.
Patagonia has long been a philanthropic business; it was an early adopter of the B-Corp movement, and its founder helped establish 1% for the Planet in 2002, but a move at this scale has never been made by an apparel business before. Chouinard says that instead of going public or selling the business and donating the profits — which would leave the family unable to control the future of Patagonia — they came up with an entirely new solution. “Instead of ‘going public,’ you could say we’re ‘going purpose,’” he said in the statement. “Instead of extracting value from nature and transforming it into wealth for investors, we’ll use the wealth Patagonia creates to protect the source of all wealth.”
Undoubtedly, Chouinard’s decision makes perfect sense for Patagonia because protecting nature has always been part of the brand’s DNA. Chouinard is also a self-described “existential dirtbag” who never wanted to be a businessman, let alone a billionaire, in the first place. He drives an old Subaru and has no phone or computer, according to the New York Times. He is, by all accounts, an outlier as far as billionaires go.
Yet his decision feels momentous because it is an unusual display of radical dedication to a cause. In an industry riddled with greenwashing, performative sustainability, and climate targets that are neither achievable nor ambitious, his rejection of the status quo is bolstering. In the same week, Kourtney Kardashian Barker released her “sustainable” collection with fast fashion brand Boohoo (yes, the very same Boohoo that was caught paying garment workers in Leicester £3.50 an hour throughout the pandemic). Encouragingly, the criticism of this problematic (in more ways than one) collaboration has been loud and clear. The public has had enough.
There is no shortage of billionaires who have made their fortune in fashion. According to the 2022 Forbes Billionaires List, the global industry has produced around 250 billionaires and Chouinard’s bold commitment to the environment will no doubt capture their attention. The question is, will they follow suit?
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