Patagonia founder takes aim: 'The elephant in the room is growth'

After 30 years of path-blazing work, Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard has a few mutinous attitudes about the world of green business. He hates the word sustainability. He doesn’t want to emulate Apple. And at his company, he says, they actually ask themselves: Does the world really need another polo shirt?

In a far-ranging keynote interview with GreenBiz Group Chairman Joel Makower at the GreenBiz Forum in San Francisco (watch video here), Chouinard tipped many a sacred cow. He wondered aloud whether sustainability efforts are working, and remarked at the same time that the spread of green business practices “has happened so much more quickly than I could have imagined.”

"If these Fortune 500 companies are now cleaning up their act, then why is the world still going to hell?” said Chouinard to an audience of hundreds of CSR officers and aspiring eco-preneurs. “The elephant in the room is growth: you make an energy-efficient refrigerator, so then you buy two of them. Not one public company will voluntarily restrict growth to save the planet.”

Chouinard compared Patagonia’s innovations over the years (from recycled materials to using all-organic cotton) to the behavior of the oldest companies in the world, some of which are 200 to 300 years old.

"Their underlying values were quality, innovation and controlled growth,” he said. “Public companies have to grow 15 percent a year. You’re being pulled all the time to grow ... and part of the way we grew was more items. We’re questioning all that.”

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