Patagonia, the clothing company, was almost Patagonia, a grain company.
Thirty-five years ago, while in Nepal on a climbing expedition, founder Yvon Chouinard started thinking about grains. "The Sherpas would say, ‘Well, OK, we'll eat your freeze-dried stuff, but once we get up high, we have to eat our own stuff, since yours doesn't give us what we need,”" he told me recently. "They'd eat tsampa, which is this roasted grain with butter tea. Years later, our scientists found out what they already knew: that complex carbohydrates are the best thing to eat when you're at high altitude," since they are the primary metabolic fuel in a mountain environment.
Chouinard did extensive research on grains, finding out about native varietals—like West Africa's dragon's foot millet or Native American corns—that had better energy factors than the mainstream grains more widely available in the U.S. He was on the verge of launching a grain company to sell those pre-roasted grains and tell the story of the native people who ate them.
But he took a different path, creating a revolution in high-performance outdoor gear for climbers and surfers—fellow "dirtbags," as he calls them affectionately—by starting what Fortune magazine would dub the "coolest company on the planet." Chouinard himself became a business icon.
Still, over the years, he has religiously hoarded streams of food-related data. Chouinard now is primed to be a part of the food revolution. His claim: The social and environmental responsibility that he champions in the apparel business is directly translatable to the food business. His new enterprise, Patagonia Provisions, produces a line of food items intended to change those items’ industries. The first product is salmon jerky.
What does a clothing guy know about salmon fishing? A lot, it turns out. And he's arguing that the principles with which he built Patagonia can apply to changing the way our food systems are run.
“We're always looking for a hole in the market,” Chouinard said. “You can go to your restaurant and they can tell you the name of the farmer who grew your chicken or lettuce. People are demanding to know that now. We've done a tremendous amount of work to know where our clothing comes from, what kind of water we are using to make it and how much. It’s very hard and confusing for the customer, and it’s the same for fish. When you’re catching salmon, they migrate long distances. You don’t know where it comes from—it could come from a very endangered run. The only way to lead is by example.”
Let's get one thing straight: Chouinard is not in the salmon jerky business. "We're in the business to change how people fish," he says bluntly. Salmon is one of the most popular fishes on the dinner table, but its industry’s environmental record is spotty. Most salmon eaten in the U.S. today is farmed, but farming the fish requires three pounds of wild fish fed to the salmon to grow one pound of salmon. As for wild salmon, many populations are healthy but some are depleted, or even endangered. When salmon are caught in the open ocean, it’s difficult to determine the fish’s origin—whether it comes from an endangered population or not—which can limit an endangered salmon’s ability to return upriver to spawn.
Chouinard's approach is to save salmon by eating them. He wants to create a demand for wild salmon that is selectively fished by First Nations fishermen in British Columbia with a keen eye to catching fully mature fish in their natal rivers. This would sustain healthy fisheries--keeping track of population numbers, avoiding endangered runs, and releasing other fish inadvertently caught. The fisheries were selected in partnership with Skeena Wild, a Canadian fish conservation organization. And it's all traceable, the way lettuce and chicken can be (and most seafood is not). To do this the way Chouinard wanted it done, he started his own fish-processing plant in Canada, providing local employment.
Chouinard says he’s taking it one step at a time. “I'm trying to run my company as if it were going to be around a hundred years from now,” he said. “What people are really going to need is food. And that’s why I really want to be a part of the food revolution.”
Looking back at Patagonia the clothing company, there is a precedent: Chouinard helped create a booming market in organic cotton by switching to the natural fabric after the formaldehyde in the processed version made his employees sick.