Yvon Chouinard thinks environmental activists could learn a thing or two from businesspeople, even if—as he puts it—businesspeople are sleazeballs.
Outdoor recreation can be a gateway drug to environmental activism. It certainly was for Patagonia founder and co-owner Yvon Chouinard, as he writes in the introduction to Tools for Grassroots Activism, a book the adventure clothier published in February. In the early 1970s, a threat to Chouinard’s beloved Ventura County surf break mobilized him to join with others and take a stand against a development project. This, he writes, was when he “came to realize the power of an individual to effect major change.”
Sure, Chouinard found success in Ventura—the development plan was defeated (the company he’d headquartered in Ventura not long before did pretty well for itself, too). But the reality is that for every victory, environmentalists lose big battles. This chagrins Chouinard, who believes many environmental organizations falter because they do not recognize what they are: a business selling a product. Just like he is. (Even though, he readily admits, many businesspeople are sleazeballs.) Instead of fleece jackets and aspirational lifestyles, environmental non-government organizations (NGOs) sell a vision of a wrong being righted, of clean air and water, of ecosystems in balance. Sure, they are profoundly different types of products, but selling them requires common tools: planning, strategy, marketing, organizing, technology, and money.
Framed that way, it doesn’t seem so outlandish that a massive clothing company would be qualified to write a guidebook for saving the environment. Still, I wanted to learn whether this how-to book could meet its lofty goal.