Patagonia seeks more sustainable wool in Patagonia

Editor's note: Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard will be a featured speaker at the GreenBiz Forum in San Francisco, which is scheduled to take place February 26-28.

The more I learn about Patagonia Inc., the more impressed I am with the way that Yvon Chouinard and his colleagues run their business.

The outdoor gear and clothing company supports what it calls the "silent sports" of climbing, skiing, snowboarding, surfing, fly fishing, paddling and trail running -- none of which require a crowd or a motor to be enjoyed. It's an enterprise that lives up to its mission: Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.

Until recently, though, Patagonia did no business in Patagonia -- a remote region of South America that includes temperate grasslands of Argentina, about 400 million acres (nearly three times the size of California) that are said to be among the most threatened, most damaged and least protected habitats in the world.

Now the company has embarked on an unusual partnership with a network of Argentine ranchers and The Nature Conservancy that is intended to build a sheep-grazing business that will not only protect, but restore parts of the Patagonian grasslands.

It's a test of an intriguing idea -- that a company that sells stuff to people can not only do less harm to the earth, but use the power of business to do environmental good.

"Can a company ever be regenerative?" asks Jill Dumaine, Patagonia's director of environmental strategy. "We aspired to it, but we couldn't envision what that would look like."

Last week I talked to Jill and Todd Copeland, who works on the environmental impact of the company's products, and to Carlos Fernandez, a project manager with The Nature Conservancy, to learn more about what they are calling sustainable wool.

The partnership took root, Carlos told me, when he met Kris Tompkins, Patagonia's former CEO, and told her that selling organic wool isn't enough. The organic standard doesn't take into account grazing practices, he told her, and overgrazing can lead to erosion and desertification.

Unsustainable grazing has already turned 20 million acres, the equivalent of 10 Yellowstone national parks, into desert-like lands, useless for supporting ranching or many species of native wildlife. 

Next page: Patagonia executives travel to Patagonia