Yvon Chouinard, the future founder of Patagonia, starts his climbing career at the age of 14. After learning how to rappel during his stint in the Southern California Falconry Club, Chouinard and his friends are gripped and start hopping trains to the west end of the San Fernando Valley. It is at the sandstone cliffs of Stoney Point he learns to climb up as well as rappel down.
Chouinard goes to a junkyard to buy a used coal fired forge, a 138-pound anvil, some tongs and hammers. He teaches himself how to blacksmith in order to make his own pitons for climbing and sells them to other members of the climbing community. Making his first pitons from an old harvester blade, Chouinard uses them on ascents of the Lost Arrow Chimney and the North Face of Sentinel Rock in Yosemite.
Chouinard partners with fellow climbing enthusiast and aeronautical engineer Tom Frost to develop a high-end climbing piton called the Realized Ultimate Reality Piton (RURP), which enables the pair to complete the hardest aid climb yet completed in North America.
Yvon and Tom Frost officially go into business together and set up Chouinard Equipment. They aim to create, redesign and improve climbing tools, offering better, stronger and lighter versions of everything climbers need. The pair focus on meeting the demands that Yvon previously faced alone, including the development of climbing hexes, or ‘Hexcentrics’ which have been used in climbing ever since.
Chouinard completes the ascent of Monte Fitz Roy and documents the experience in a film called Fitzroy. Part of the Patagonia region which contains the southern Andes, the mountain is considered one of the world’s toughest climbs.
Chouinard Equipment has grown to be the largest climbing hardware company in the US. However, the company quickly becomes aware of the permanent damage their pitons are doing to the rocks. Chouinard and Frost subsequently decide to move out of the piton industry, which accounts for 70% of their turnover; a significant business risk yet one that shows their consideration for the environment first and foremost.
In the same year Yvon starts wearing Umbro rugby shirts that he picks up in Scotland while climbing. Their tough construction and large collar that protects the neck from the rub of climbing slings makes them perfect for the sport.
Chouinard Equipment introduces aluminum chocks to the climbing market. These are a big improvement on the rock damaging pitons used by climbers at the time in terms of environmental impact. Rather than being hammered into cracks, these chocks are wedged by hand. The risk pays off and soon demand for the new aluminium chocks exceeds the rate at which Chouinard Equipment can produce them. This helps to bring about the ‘clean climbing’ movement championed by Chouinard in the company’s first equipment catalogue, which included a significant amount of information on climbing ethics alongside showcasing products.
Sales of outdoor clothing and accessories begin when Chouinard starts importing the rugby shirts he found on his Scottish climbing trip two years earlier and selling them to the US outdoor community. He also introduces other outdoor clothing products to the American market, including polyurethane rain cagoules and bivouac sacks imported from Scotland, boiled-wool gloves and mittens imported from Austria as well as hand made knitted hats made in the US.
Chouinard also creates the iconic Stand Up Short with the help of a friend’s wife. Made from tough No. 10 canvas, the shorts are so stiff that they’re able to stand up by themselves, which is where their name comes from. The shorts remain part of Patagonia’s collection to this day, with few changes other than being Fair Trade Certified and made of softer organic cotton for increased comfort.
The Patagonia brand is officially born as Chouinard Equipment adopts the name Patagonia for its outdoor clothing range and the brand opens its first store near Chouinard’s blacksmith shop. Housed in a meat-packing plant at Santa Clara St in Ventura, the store becomes the first of its kind for the company.
The Patagonia name helps to differentiate clothing lines from Chouinard Equipment’s mountaineering specific products, enabling the brand to be seen as not offering only products for mountain climbers but for everyone involved in outdoor activities. The name is chosen as Chouinard was inspired by his visits to the Patagonia region, and considers the name to sound like a wondrous, far flung and almost mythical place.
Patagonia employees attend a city council meeting to protest the potential disruption to a popular surf break as a result of proposed development of the mouth of the Ventura River. Considered a dead river, a young graduate named Mark Capelli presents evidence of the importance of the river for wildlife, and the development plans are overturned. Patagonia provides Capelli with office space and contributions to help him fight to save and clean up the river, leading to the formation of the Friends Of Ventura River action group, and marking Patagonia’s first foray into environmental activism.
Patagonia introduces its now iconic logo which features a silhouette of Mount Fitz Roy, a mountain in the Patagonia region between Argentina and Chile. Designed in collaboration between Yvon Chouinard and Jocelyn Slack, a freelance artist working for Patagonia, the logo is currently used on most Patagonia products including a range of Fitz Roy Patagonia t-shirts, made from 100% organic cotton.
Patagonia releases the Pile Fleece Jacket, which quickly becomes a signature look for the brand and inspires other staple items such as the Better Sweater jacket in the years to come. Designed for cold weather use, the Pile Fleece jacket is made from thick insulating fleece fabric and features a high neckline inspired by the clothing used by fishermen in tough conditions.
Patagonia releases a range of insulating base layers made from polypropylene which absorbs no water. After various experiments and plentiful research, the underwear makes its breakthrough and is picked up by the outdoor community as a replacement for garments made from cotton which absorbs and holds onto moisture, leading to a chilling effect in cold conditions.
Patagonia begins to educate wearers on the concept of layering their clothing. Layering involves using breathable base layers to move sweat and moisture that has the potential to freeze away from the body, middle layers designed for warmth and insulation and outer shells to provide protection from wind and rain.
Chouinard Equipment and Patagonia are incorporated within Great Pacific Iron Works, named after the brand’s first store of the same name. The Patagonia brand also pioneers the use of colourful garment designs in the outdoor industry, bringing a breath of fresh air customers previously only able to select from traditional greens, greys and browns.
Patagonia releases its iconic ‘Baggies’ shorts. Designed by Yvon Chouinard, the shorts are made from water repellent nylon fabric. Intended to be suitable for a wide range of outdoor activities, Baggies are quick drying, lightweight yet tough. The shorts prove to be popular with a wide range of customers and become a staple of the Patagonia collection. As firm favourites since their introduction, Baggies remain relatively unchanged in terms of design over the coming decades, but move to recycled nylon in 2018.
Away from developing new products, Patagonia becomes one of the first companies in the US to provide on-site childcare for employees, helping new parents return to work and improving staff retention. Childcare is part of Patagonia’s lifelong commitment to treating staff fairly, which also includes paid time off and sick days, which at the time is unusual for US businesses.
Patagonia opens an on-site cafeteria for employees serving healthy organic food throughout the day, as part of the company’s ethos of taking care of employees as well as customers and the planet. The company also eliminates private offices, a move that will see open plan working helping to create a culture of communication and collaboration amongst employees.
In the same year, while sales of polypropylene base layer range are strong, Patagonia looks to address issues with the products that include difficulty in removing stains, odour retention and a reduction in moisture wicking ability after being washed.
At the Sporting Goods show in Chicago, Yvon Chouinard experiences a demonstration of polyester sports jerseys being cleaned of grass stains. The company that made these jerseys, Milliken, had also created a manufacturing process to give the fabric permanent moisture wicking properties. Chouinard realises this type of polyester would be a perfect material for Patagonia’s base layer products.
Making the jump to polyester, the whole underwear range is put at risk, and while initial sales figures favour the old polypropylene, core customers gradually make the switch to better performing fabric called Capilene. The risk pays off and sales boom.
The legendary non-pilling Synchilla Fleece is also introduced to the market and used initially in Patagonia’s Snap-T pullover. Taking its name from its soft handle and high warmth, making it a ‘synthetic chinchilla’, Synchilla has since become a mainstay of Patagonia’s range.
It’s decided that 10% of company profits will be donated to environmental groups. The stance evolves as Patagonia decides to commit either 1% of total sales or 10% of profit, whichever is higher. This commitment has been stuck to ever since.
Patagonia launches its first Pataloha climbing shirt. A combination of Hawaiian inspired designs interworked with depictions of climbing gear, the Pataloha shirt range has continued ever since, with special editions released through the years such as the return of the Polynesian voyaging canoe Hokule’a to Hawaii in 2017 after a 3 year voyage, and the 30-year anniversary edition also released in 2017.
Patagonia’s first national environmental campaign is initiated and focuses on plans to deurbanize the Yosemite Valley. Every year since, Patagonia has campaigned and raised awareness about a different environmental issue.
The brand also debuts its H2NO waterproof fabric with the Storm jacket. The technology has since been continuously improved to reduce environmental impact and improve performance, and is used on most of Patagonia’s waterproof jackets to this day.
Chouinard Equipment is forced to file for bankruptcy after losing a series of lawsuits relating to safety issues. Meanwhile, Patagonia is a founding member of The Conservation Alliance, an organisation that strives to protect outdoor spaces by bringing together the power of brands and communities.
A group of former employees buy the Chouinard Equipment Company and continue to manufacture the innovative climbing products under the name Black Diamond Equipment.
Patagonia’s quality team starts to review potential manufacturing partners in terms of both the quality of the products produced and the conditions for factory employees. Patagonia introduces a policy to not work with any factory that they are not able to visit in person to check on working conditions.
Sales growth comes to a halt due to a recession. In order to pay off debt, costs are cut and inventory is dumped while 20% of the work face is laid off. The company is in serious trouble and is close to losing independence; all borrowing and growth is kept to a modest scale.
Although economic issues are affecting sales, Patagonia sticks to its core principles of responsibility and implements a contractor relationship assessment strategy to ensure all manufacturing partners meet performance criteria for quality, environmental impact and the fair treatment of employees.
Patagonia looks to reduce the environmental impact of its products and creates the outdoor clothing world’s first fleece fabric made from recycled bottles. The fabric is used to create a new version of the company’s Synchilla fleece to produce garments such as the iconic Snap-T pullover.
The decision is made to move to 100% organic cotton by 1996 after Patagonia examines its supply chain and identifies pesticides used in cotton production as a major source of pollution.
A new distribution center in Reno opens, helping to achieve a 60% reduction in energy use by using solar-tracking skylights and radiant heating. Every piece of Patagonia cotton clothing from this point onwards is made from organic cotton.
After participating in President Bill Clinton’s No Sweat Initiative which aims to introduce minimum standards for working conditions in the supply chain, Patagonia also becomes a founding member of the Fair Labor Association (FLA) which audits factories, provides training and aims to improve the lives of workers around the world.
Patagonia brings on board a Social Responsibility Manager to focus on potential social compliance issues within its supply chain. It also introduces training policies for all employees to ensure their actions and decisions don’t impact workers negatively in terms of working hours and pressure to meet deadlines.
Yvon Chouinard and partner Craig Matthews set up 1% for the Planet, a business alliance which encourages members to give 1% of gross sales to support environmental awareness and work.
New seaming methods are introduced for both soft and hard shell jackets. These improvements are beneficial for all with less bulk, an improvement in drape and improved performance in wet weather. Chouinard also writes a book called Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman. The book focuses on the working culture of the Patagonia brand and explains the business benefits of providing a great work-life balance to staff. Its popularity leads to the formation of Patagonia Books, a new publishing arm of the brand.
Patagonia reduces the number of factories that it uses to produce its products by 50% in order to achieve increased transparency and ensure its partners maintain high standards when it comes to treatment of workers.
Patagonia launches The Footprint Chronicles, which allows customers to trace the journey of items from design and production of raw materials through to manufacturing and retail.
Patagonia initiates a meeting of clothing industry leaders, NGOs and the Environmental Protection Agency in the US to initiate the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, which aims to develop “an apparel industry that produces no unnecessary environmental harm and has a positive impact on the people and communities associated with its activities”.
The brand also creates a new Director of Social and Environmental Responsibility role at its HQ to further integrate responsible practices with the operations of the business, and achieves near 100% auditing of all manufacturing partners, including subcontractors.
Patagonia runs its famous “Don’t Buy This Jacket” ad in the New York Times on Black Friday, in an effort to encourage customers to break away from disposable fashion, consider their buying habits and buy only what they need. The ad features Patagonia’s popular R2 Jacket, explaining the resources required for its manufacture and encouraging customers to repair and recycle via the Patagonia Common Threads Initiative which enables customers to send worn items back to Patagonia for refurbishment and resale.
The brand also rolls out a new state-of-the-art system to detect instances of human trafficking in the supply chain, as well as commencing full auditing of suppliers of raw materials used to manufacture Patagonia products.
Inspired by popular products from its archive, Patagonia resurrects the Synchilla Snap-T Pullover, made from lightweight yet durable recycled polyester fleece and featuring a stand up collar and elasticated cuffs, the top is equally at home in the city as it is in the great outdoors.
Patagonia becomes the first company in California to acquire benefit corporation status, enabling it to legally stay mission driven as it expands. The company also identifies and sets about eliminating debt bondage practices affecting workers at raw materials suppliers in Taiwan, putting in place a strategy to eliminate all workers paying for their jobs by 2020.
Patagonia goes back to its roots with the ‘Legacy Collection’ which features similar pieces to the very first products created 40 years ago. From pullovers and rain coats to a backpack, pants and even down-filled pieces, the collection draws inspiration from the originals and combines with modern eco-conscious manufacturing.
Patagonia also sets up Tin Shed Ventures to help fund startups with an environmental focus. In the same yearPatagonia partners with Fair Trade USA to supplement the wages of workers involved in the manufacture of the brand’s Fair Trade Certified products.
Patagonia commits to 100% traceable down from ethical sources for its entire range, while the release of the Nano-Air jacket proves the brand’s commitment to functional and refined designs. The jacket is made from FullRange insulation and nylon fabric, bringing with it the highly breathable characteristics it’s well known for.
Chouinard releases a book ‘Simple Fly Fishing’ as part of a limited edition kit which also includes a Tenkara-style fly fishing rod, line and leader, box of flies and a set up booklet, while Patagonia launches its Patagonia Provisions line to sell responsibly sourced and ethically produced food.
Patagonia also releases its first Fair Trade Certified products. Initially a capsule collection from the women’s range made at a single factory, over the next five years Patagonia’s Fair Trade programme expands to 10 countries and reaches 66,000 workers, providing funding for increased pay and benefits such as child care centres.
A video releases detailing the life of Yvon Chouinard and how he, to this day, is still committed to environmental conservation. Patagonia drops its wool supplier after discovering evidence of inhumane treatment of animals.
Patagonia commits to the FLA’s Fair Compensation Workplan to provide a living wage to all workers in its supply chains, and is named as a leading company in rolling out the plan thanks to the in-house Fair Wage Taskforce at Patagonia.
Patagonia also starts to work towards adopting the principles of regenerative agriculture with its raw material producers as a way to help tackle climate change, and in the same year is recognised by Barack Obama for its commitment to assisting working families through its staff benefits such as childcare, paid time off and flexible hours.
100% for the planet sees all of the Black Friday sales go towards “grassroots organisations working in local communities to protect our air, water and soil for future generations”, which totals $10 million.
Patagonia also launches a competition in collaboration with UC Berkeley to identify scalable regenerative agriculture solutions to help fight climate change.
Patagonia introduces their “Worn Wear” website, allowing items in good condition to be returned for new merchandise credits and encouraging customers to repair rather than replace their used items. All returned garments are cleaned and repaired before sale and the initiative is part of the brand’s commitment to sustainability.
Patagonia decides to sue the Trump administration in response to the decision to reduce protection of national monuments. They receive significant plaudits as well as a huge increase in sales during the following days.
The brand releases its first ever TV commercial to highlight the cause. Featuring almost none of the company’s products, the commercial is a minute long film in which Yvon Chouinard talks about the need to protect public lands in America.
In another first for the brand, Patagonia launch their first ever sleeping bag. The 850 Down Bag is inspired by a sleeping bag Chouinard made for himself 45 years previous, and uses Patagonia’s ethically sourced down for warmth.
Patagonia announces Patagonia Action Works, a digital platform intended to connect people with nonprofit environmental organisations and enabling them to get involved with local activism. The company also changes its mission statement to “We’re in business to save our home planet” and donates $10 million it receives in tax breaks to environmental causes.
After 10 years of development, Patagonia launches the Micro Puff jacket which offers the highest warmth to weight ratio in the brand’s history. Made with PlumaFill synthetic insulation, as a lightweight and water resistant down alternative, the jacked is Fair Trade Certified and marks a new era in Patagonia’s insulated range.
Patagonia recycles 10 million plastic bottles to create it’s Black Hole bag range, of which 100% of the body and webbing are recycled.
The brand declines repeat orders for co-branded work garments from certain Wall Street companies, as it no longer wishes to support ecologically damaging organisations, instead choosing only to work with mission driven companies that prioritise the environment. This year Patagonia also works closely with Taiwanese suppliers to eliminate recruitment practices that see migrant workers having to pay for their jobs. It’s also named as one of the world’s most transparent fashion brands and since beginning its Fair Trade programme in 2014, reaches 70% of its products being made at Fair Trade certified factories.
Patagonia releases its first ever collaboration, teaming up with legendary footwear brand Danner to create the Foot Tractor wading boot that is designed for fly-fishing.
Patagonia releases an updated version of its iconic Torrentshell Jacket, using 3 layer construction and 100% recycled fabrics for the garment face.
Patagonia backs hundreds of groups campaigning to highlight a range of environmental issues via its Grantees programme. In protest of politicians who disregard climate issues, ahead of US elections Patagonia sews labels inside its Road to Regenerative Organic Stand Up Shorts range saying “Vote the A**holes Out”.
The company joins the “Stop Hate For Profit” campaign and stops all advertising on Facebook in protest of disinformation present on the platform. It also temporarily closes all its stores and stops taking online orders in an effort to keep staff safe during the Covid-19 pandemic.
From the early days of activewear for mountain climbers and people who love the outdoors to the extended ranges we see today for sports such as snowboarding, skiing, surfing, fishing and even paddling, Patagonia has kept its core values. After getting to grips with its environmental impact in the early days, and continuing to make changes to its own practices where necessary in an effort to become ever more responsible, Patagonia has stamped its mark in trying to create a better, greener world for all.
With the introduction of organic cotton, friendly materials and plentiful donations to environmental causes, as well as being actively involved in highlighting and promoting environmental concerns, Patagonia is an industry leader when it comes to sustainability and caring for the environment, and is regarded as one of the most transparent brands in the clothing sector.
With the developments of performance fabrics and materials the brand has grown to be at the forefront of advances in outdoor clothing, and while it has experienced challenges along the way, has never shied away from them. Patagonia has faced everything head on and even with a possible company ending scare during a recession, has always stuck to its core values, delivering timeless classics and innovating new technologies, many which have revolutionised the industry and brought about real change for the good of the environment as well as people working in the supply chain.
For a brand to care so much about the environment that it is a core belief and driving force behind almost every decision made by the company is rare, and that should be appreciated by all.