Putting Patagonia on a pedestal

Do we have a double standard when it comes to billionaires?

Criticizing Patagonia about anything feels like a major outdoor industry faux pas these days. Yes, they take the lead on many environmental stewardship and conservation issues. Yes, their company policies are great and we love their “don’t buy new stuff” campaigns (although they seem to increase sales every time they run that campaign). None of those things make them immune to discussion and criticism.

But why would you ever want to criticize Patagonia, they’re amazing, that’s not productive!

I too, love the work that Patagonia does. However, the mythos around Chouinard and the fanaticism around Patagonia has seemingly reached a point where people are unwilling to engage in discussion about it. Anecdotally, any comments regarding recent events (Chouinard donating Patagonia) I saw that even remotely questioned the altruism of Chouinard or Patagonia were quickly decried by legions of outdoorsy Patagonia fans.

Let’s talk about Chouinard donating Patagonia to charity.

In case you missed the news, a few weeks ago Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia, donated the company to charity in order to insure its mission to protect the planet continues after his death. In technical terms, he transferred most of his Patagonia shares of the company to a newly created charity called the Holdfast Collective, and his voting shares (special shares that affect voting/control of Patagonia) to a trust controlled by his family.

The Holdfast Collective is a 501c4

This means that whomever runs the organization can use the profits they receive from Patagonia for more direct political purposes. Think of it kind of like a Super PAC (in fact, many 501c4 organizations run their own PACs). This means they can use the money to run ads, donate to political campaigns, and endorse specific candidates. This is different than a 501c3, which can endorse measures (but not candidates) they support, and focus on advocacy and education-based campaigns.

Now, the Holdfast Collective will be dedicated to supporting environmental causes, addressing climate change, land conservancy, etc, which all sounds great.

So what’s the problem here?

The problem is not with Chouinard or his goals, I don’t think there’s anyone (including myself) who doubts his dedication to the environment and combatting climate change. The issue is with a double-standard applied to billionaires. There are a lot of folks who aren’t fans of Bezos,  Elon, etc. These people talk about ‘eliminating billionaires’ and how the existence of them in the first place is a pox on society. But when a billionaire comes along that champions their cause and puts money exactly where they think it should go, people are ready to throw a ticker tape parade.

The issue with this is that if you support “your” billionaires doing this kind of thing, then you have to allow the other ones to do this as well. As the NYT mentions, conservative Barre Seid took the exact same approach as Chouinard, “giving 100 percent of his electronics company to a nonprofit organization, reaping an enormous personal tax windfall as he made a $1.6 billion gift to fund conservative causes, including efforts to stop action on climate change.

The question becomes — should billionaires (whether you like them or not), be able to move their money in such a way to continue wielding an oversized level of control and influence — and also avoid taxes? Granted, there’s no question that the government is not always the best at spending money in the “right” places (again, depends on your view). But, for every benevolent billionaire like Chouinard or Gates there’s a Barre Seid on the other side.

Many of the issues faced by the outdoor industry are incredibly complex, with no clear right/wrong answers. “Good” actions or policies can have “negative” effects, and we need to be able to acknowledge and have frank discussions about these things. Is what Chouinard did the “right” thing? Is it better to exploit the existing loopholes to exact a positive outcome, or live out a more idealistic view that billionaires should pay their share in taxes? How do we promote broader accessibility to the outdoors in a time of increased visitation and environmental degradation? How do we make mountain towns livable but also don’t build anything new (because *any* development = bad). Should we be building more trails or less trails? Is “wilderness” meant to be experienced, or be preserved?

I don’t have the answers either, but they are fascinating questions that deserve discussion that I don’t think there is enough of. I’ll leave you to ponder :)

Welp, since I wrote this earlier this week, Adam Conover of “Adam Ruins Everything” fame released a video about this topic that dives into this issue in a more entertaining (and opinionated) way. It’s a great watch and gets into significantly more detail than I did here.