I grew up hearing the name Yvon Chouinard at the dinner table. If you are not familiar with the name, Yvon Chouinard is the founder of Patagonia, a clothing company dedicated to making gear for the“silent sports” - climbing, skiing, snowboarding, surfing, hiking, fly fishing, paddling, trail running - sports that require no motor or cheering crowd. Chouinard is also my mom’s all time hero and a large part of the inspiration behind my parents opening Townsend Bertram & Company 30 years ago. I’ve always known Patagonia as a leader in our industry and in the world for setting higher environmental standards for businesses, but it wasn’t until I toured their headquarters and archives that I experienced Patagonia’s impact on a visceral level.
When I arrived at Patagonia’s headquarters in Ventura, the smell of charred earth still lingered in the air from the decimating fires that swept across Southern California weeks earlier. Never before in our history have we needed socially and environmentally sustainable leaders more. After a devastating year for our country politically with the loss of public lands and decline in environmental health, I felt the heartbeat of hope alive in that Great Pacific Iron Works sign swinging in the wind; the hope that businesses can create the change we need to see in our country and keep the wild places wild.
I was lucky enough to spend the day with Terri Laine who has played a pivotal role in building the Patagonia archives along with her partner Val Franco. Laine has worked with Patagonia for 32 years and encapsulates the essence of the company in her engaged, creative and passionate spirit. I instantly liked her authentic nature. Laine’s knowledge of the product, culture and core values amazed me as she guided me through beautifully curated collections of original Chouinard tools for climbers that Patagonia was founded on long before the Down Sweater and Nano Puffs you see strolling the streets today. Looking through black and white photos of the Chouinards designing and forging hardware in the original Tin Shed was inspiring. With my marketing focus, I especially loved seeing Patagonia’s early marketing materials that Laine had a hand in building and designing. Another highlight was checking out Yvon’s original Stand Up Shorts, tattered but still alive; a testament to the quality of the design as those shorts remain a best selling item in the line today.
Laine explains that customers regularly send in pieces for the archive with notes. Letters from these loyal customers accompany gear and apparel displayed on the walls. Laine and her archive partner, Val Franco, are always collecting things from thrift shops, past and current employees, and online as well, seeking older styles to complete the archival collection stored neatly in labeled boxes that line endless shelves. A timeline, in progress, stretches across a long wall with images, clippings from newspapers and magazines, sticky notes with important dates, and pictures showcasing the company’s dedication to environmental responsibility over forty plus years. They even have a piece of clothing that the Museum of Modern Art included in Items: is fashion modern, an exhibition “exploring the wide range of relationships between clothing, functionality, culture, aesthetics, politics, labor, economy and technology.”
Despite the company’s growth, Alpinism remains at the heart of Patagonia, evident in their history seeped in connection and protection of the natural world. Though the styles and colors have changed over the years, simplicity and utility remain constant design elements. Hearing Laine’s poignant stories of guiding past and current Patagonia employees and original customers through the archives is a testament to the impact the company makes on the people who become a part of it.
After our tour of the archives, Laine took me to the organic and fabulously delicious Patagonia cafeteria. Even the food - beans and rice and the most epic salad bar you can imagine - reflected the company’s core values of high quality nourishing ingredients simply and thoughtfully prepared. I wasn’t sure I would be able to eat the fantastic food when no other than Yvon Chouinard himself sat down across from me at the table!
I told him how much I enjoyed the archives and asked him what he was looking forward to. He told me about an upcoming fishing trip to Patagonia. We talked about the company’s work to protect public lands and I inquired about the development of the new Patagonia Provisions line. I couldn’t resist asking him for a photo to share with my mom. He laughed but agreed, cracking a smile next to my mile wide one.
In the chaos of everyday work it is easy to lose sight of why we do what we do. Visiting Patagonia infused me with passion and purpose. Since my return I have pinned Patagonia’s mission statement to my bulletin board: “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, and use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.” This isn’t just a mission statement. These are words to live by. How can you be the best you, cause no unnecessary harm in your community and use your life as a vehicle for inspiring others? When you buy from locally owned shops that carry environmentally responsible products like ours, you practice conscious consumerism, which is not only more environmentally, but also more socially responsible by supporting your local economy. Dollars are votes and how you spend them counts.
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