Presentation to Attending Scientists and Stewards

Yvon Chouinard

Patagonia Inc., Founder

Port Angeles WA - September 15, 2011


Moderator’s Introduction 
Yvon Chouinard’s Opening 
A Problem with Cotton 
The Problem with Salmon Fisheries 
A Fish-Processing Plant as a Solution

All images © Alison M. Jones. All rights reserved.

Introductory Note

Removal of the Elwha Dam, Olympic National Park, Washington

Yvon Chouinard (born 1938) is an American rock climber, environmentalist and outdoor industry businessman. He founded his company Patagonia in 1973. Chouinard has written two books explaining his environmental and corporate philosophies: Let My People Go Surfing and The Responsible Company. He supported “DamNation,” a documentary about the destructive nature of dams, including those in South America and the Lower Snake River.

“The economic benefits of intact nature, its climate regulation, soil formation, nutrient cycling, available fuel, food and fibers, pharmaceutical products from forests, and wild species – outstrip [human] exploitation profits by a conservative estimate of 100 to 1.

“We are now on the cusp of a multitude of good options for clean energy, like solar, wind, tidal power, wave power, geothermal and energy efficiency. Rather than storing water in on-stream reservoirs, water is best stored in underground aquifers, off-stream reservoirs and restored floodplain basins that also provide flood protection and water quality benefits. Water conservation and efficiency measures alone eliminate the need for new storage dams, and existing railroads are a viable alternative to shipping produce on barges. I wonder why we are so impatient to destroy our rivers with this outdated technology and why we have to wait so long to tear down these obsolete behemoths.” 

— Yvon Chouinard, Dammed If We Don’t, June 2012

Moderator's Introduction

ROB YOUNG (MODERATOR)  My name’s Rob Young. I’m the director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines, which is a joint Duke University / Western Carolina University program that examines both science of environmental restoration and policy. This is a pretty exciting day! How many of you heard the piece on “All Things Considered” tonight when you were driving around town and the sound of a dam being hammered here?

It seems the national media has finally taken interest in what’s been going on here for the last 20 years. It was a pretty exciting sound to me. You may have noticed, in parallel with the hammering of the dam today, a little bit of rain fell here in Port Angeles. I interpreted [those raindrops] to be tears of joy from Elwha tribal elders like E. Charles who had worked towards the removal of these dams for such a long time. So, today really is a day for celebration here. And tonight is a part of that celebration as we hear from Yvon Chouinard, our keynote speaker.

Yvon Chouinard's Opening

YVON CHOUINARD  Well, it’s a great time to be a dam buster! Not only the dams [here], but the three big dams on the Penobscot in Maine – the largest river in Maine – that are slated to come out starting the end of this year. That is the last hope for restoring Atlantic salmon back in the United States. I never intended to see some of these dams come down in my lifetime; but I think we’re on a roll. I say let’s do something about those deadbeat dams.

What I’d like to talk about tonight is what could be done with these new free-flowing rivers that would benefit the people and especially our children; other wild things; and the fish, which are the key to having a “Salmon Nation.”

“‘Salmon Nation’ comprises the historic Pacific Salmon runs from Alaska down to San Francisco and technically, that actually goes all the way over into Japan and Russia.” — Dan Etra in No Water No Life interview (July 5, 2007, Portland OR)

[NB: Many of these runs have ended or are failing due to habitat destruction from dams, development, deforestation and other human impacts. — AMJ, No Water No Life]

A Problem with Cotton

Last year, I gave a talk in Vancouver at a so-called “Sustainable Fisheries Conference.” I was asked to make a connection between making clothes and fish. Actually, four years ago, we made a climbing pack out of a polyurethane-coated nylon that smelled so bad we called it “the fish pack.”

I told these people a story about our Boston store. We opened the Boston store about 20 years ago, and in the springtime, we brought in all this sports wear. We had restored an old building and within three days, my employees were complaining they were getting sick, having headaches. I closed the store and brought in an environmental chemist.

He said, “Your [ventilation] system is working properly and you’re recycling the same air.”

I said, “What’s making them sick?”

He said, “Well, it’s formaldehyde poisoning.”

Well, you know, formaldehyde in biology class is that chemical that is in a jar with a snake or a frog, or something.

I said, “Well, wait a minute. Where’s the formaldehyde coming from?”

He said, “Well, it’s on all your clothes, all your cotton clothes.”

I said, “What?”

He said, “It’s used to keep your clothes from shrinking and wrinkling. So, when you buy a pair of chinos that are ‘Stay-Pressed,’ it may say ‘100% cotton’ but in reality, it’s only about 73% cotton on average. The rest is chemicals put on for the shrinking and wrinkling.”

Texas Cotton Boll

Well, I had no idea about this. I went into the clothing business completely blind. I had just called the fabric supplier and told him to come by with books on big, thick samples of fabrics and said, “Oh, I like this. Give me 5,000 yards of this.”

I had no idea what went into the fabric’s finishing, or anything. I never questioned what I was doing as a businessman at that time. Well, that kind of turned the lights on for me. I started asking, “Well, I wonder what else we’re doing that’s evil without us knowing about it?”

So, we started an Environmental Assessment Program at work and started asking questions. The first question was, “Well okay, so what fiber should we be making clothing out of that is most responsible – and what is the worst?”

At first, we thought synthetics would be the worst because they’re made out of petroleum; but it turns out that 100% pure cotton was the worst possible fiber to be making clothing out of. When cotton is industrially grown, it uses like 25% of the pesticides and insecticides used in the world – the entire world; and cotton only occupies 3% of the world’s farmland. The crop is defoliated so that the mechanical pickers can pick the cotton. It’s sprayed with a chemical similar to paraquat – Agent Orange – with which we defoliated Vietnam. The cancer rate in cotton-growing areas is 10 times above normal. This was a surprise. So, we decided that we would never use industrially-grown cotton again and switched over to organically grown.

Texas Cotton Field

Well, that wasn’t the end of it, because then, well, how about dyes? Are dyes toxic? We didn’t know and there were no books to tell us whether they are or not. Yeah, we found some dyes that were not toxic in Germany, but some colors were toxic. So, this led us down the path of trying to find out, all the way to the end, what we were doing.

The bottom line is – if you want to be a responsible business – you have to follow your supply chain of processes and resources all the way to the end. The end is usually the farmer, the forester, the miner, the oil driller or fisherman. When you find that evil is being done in your name, on your behalf, or your company – stop doing it!

The Problem with Salmon Fisheries

After I told the story to all these fisheries people, I challenged them. They probably had no idea where their fish comes from. Well, I heard an old nervous laughter. I said, “Let’s take Pacific salmon as an example. If you catch a sockeye in a gill net at the mouth of the Columbia, it could be one of those 10 sockeyes that’s slated to go all the way to Idaho in Red Fish Lake. A Coho may have come from a stream that … is full of toxic dioxins. There’s a good chance that that Chinook was bred in a hatchery and is really a farmed fish, with all its attendant problems.

Washington State Salmon Hatchery

Fishing for salmon in the ocean is often non-selective. For example, this summer in southern British Columbia on a one-day opening of a fishery, 870 metric tons of pink salmon were caught – along with an incidental catch of 310 metric tons of chums. The chums had to be dumped back to the sea…, because, in that area, chums are endangered. These fishermen were paid six to ten cents a pound.

Since the fish were treated so badly – they’re caught in big, huge seines; dumped in a hole with ice thrown on top; and cleaned in a day or two – they end up as a low-value product at the cannery. Had the pinks instead been allowed to return to their native rivers and then caught selectively, no chums would have been wasted. I told them that catching salmon in the ocean, where there is a mixed stock, is not sustainable.

Well, I didn’t make myself very popular with that crowd. All I probably did was make a few people feel a little guilty and then it was back to business as usual. Well, I’ve always thought that there’s only one form of leadership – and that’s by example. So, as a lifelong entrepreneur, I smelled an opportunity to make a profit; do some good; and show the industry how I thought it should be done.

A Fish-Processing Plant as a Solution

This spring, Patagonia, with a Canadian partner, built a state-of-the-art, fish-processing plant along the banks of the Skeena River in British Columbia. It’s 60 miles from the ocean. So, why there? Because we want to use mostly river-caught fish caught upstream of any tributary that has endangered runs. For example – above the Kitwanga River, there used to be a run of 100,000 sockeye. Now in a good year, it has from 800 to 3,000.

These fish are going to be caught by First Nations people using fish wheels, fish traps, dip nets and beach seines. It’s a very selective fishery where the non-targeted fish, like steelhead, are released alive. The wild steelhead fishery, via sports fishermen in the Skeena system, contributes $110 million a year to the local economy – way more dollars than the entire commercial fishery. And it’s sustainable because it’s all catch-and-release.

Mural in British Columbia

Because the pink and the sockeyes are caught live, they are immediately killed and bled. The eggs can be used [if] you take the eggs out as soon as you kill the fish. Otherwise you have to throw the eggs away, which happens in the ocean. The eggs can be used – and the salmon itself is a superior product. A fish that’s bled can be kept in a fridge for 20 days. (One that is not bled and cleaned right away will smell like our “fish-pack” after six to eight days.) The First Nations people are paid three times as much for their river-caught pink salmon because it’s a superior product and the eggs can be sold for $3 to $16 / pound. Also, 23 local people are working in the plant. We have no intention of ever buying genetically-engineered “Frankenfish.” No farmed salmon.

If Walmart and Target won’t sell farmed salmon, there must be a good reason. We will not be dealing in any hatchery-bred Chinook or steelhead; and we will lobby to list hatchery-bred fish as a farmed fish to be put on your “Avoid” list on your seafood card. We will be buying fish caught at sea where there are no mixed stocks (like the Bristol Bay sockeye fishery), or [caught with] the tangle-tooth method of fishing, where they use a very small, light-monofilament net that catches them by the teeth and keeps them alive. [With that method], you pull your net up every hour; you release the non-targeted fish; and you keep the ones that are targeted. It’s a very selective way to fish, far better than gillnets that kill the fish.

Gill nets used in the Columbia River Estuary

Will we be successful in our river wild-salmon business? Does the consumer care where their salmon steak comes from? Well, you go to many high-end restaurants and see the name of the farmer who raised the chicken and the farmer who grew the lettuce. Of course the consumer cares! The consumers have choices these days. Given enough information, they’d prefer to do the right thing. I can tell you, I know we’re doing the right thing when I see a widowed mother, with two children that she has to support on $350 a month, helping pull in a beach seine on the Skeena, singing her traditional songs from their families.

Consumers have all the power. So, if we could educate consumers…. You know, there are 400 indexes being produced now for all kinds of different products: from refrigerators to lawn mowers to everything. So, if the consumer starts making intelligent choices and responsible choices, corporations will have to follow; and if corporations have to follow, then so will government.

Thank you very much for having me speak here.

Question and Answer Period

MALE QUESTIONER  The US Army Corps of Engineers and you guys [at Patagonia] had a great video on those Lower Elwha dams. But you really fell short of what the problem is. Those dams are a travesty. They always have been. From the day that Congress first authorized those, it’s been a sham. And you know, I’m going to get fired for what I’m about to tell you; but it’s time, because 10 years ago, the Corps of Engineers spent over $30 million on the lower [dam’s] feasibility study. And if anybody had even bothered to really dig into that study – and you can’t read 5,000 pages – inside there is the story of an economic disaster, a biological disaster, a navigation disaster, a societal travesty, and an extreme injustice on our Native Americans.

I want to tell you that this judge that’s been fighting all these years, he senses this. It’s intuitive to him. But he doesn’t have all the information. No one can. It’s so complex – but fundamentally, it’s simple. Just like you said, those dams are in the way. It doesn’t take rocket science to figure it out, but we’ve complicated it with the rocket science. All the studies, all the stuff, and all the economic analysis have just clouded the issue to the point that we can’t get to the main issue.

So anyway, what I want to say is that I appreciate what Patagonia has done. The video you’ve done and the statements you made are just dead on. It’s time for the people of Washington State to wake up and stop falling into the rhetoric that we hear in federal agencies and so forth, and in politics and so forth, and have fallen for – for decades now – about the viability of those four dams. I’m not talking about all dams, but I am talking about these dams. It’s time for us to stand up and say what needs to be said about the removal of those dams. Thanks.

YVON CHOUINARD  I love free-flowing rivers, so we worked on starting campaigns for a lot of dams. The Edwards Dam on the Kennebec in Maine was going kind of nowhere. There were a few small environmental groups trying to fight, but going nowhere. So, we paid $300,000, or something, for some full-page ads in the national edition of the New York Times, saying the Edwards Dam should come out. We made it a national issue, not a little local issue. That gave confidence to these and other environmental groups to really get going on taking dams out. And they’re gone!

Within a year, the alewives and the striped bass and salmon were all returning back to the river. You know, in the environmental game, there are hardly any victories. All you do is just stave them off for a little while. That’s all there is. It’s just constant treadmill. But taking out a dam is a concrete thing!

Condit Dam on White Salmon River, WA – Breached One Year After Elwha Dam

MALE QUESTIONER  This is a shining group of people, intimidating for sure. My name’s Eric Peterson. It’s an honor to be here – and it’s an honor to be able to ask you a question. And I have Patagonia shoes! I really like them…

I was thinking about your saying you lead by example. I am curious about your perspective on private industries following your lead. Just curious about your perspective of other types of business following your lead, and doing the right thing.

YVON CHOUINARD  Well, one of the strongest things I can say is that other companies – we have companies visiting us all the time – want to see if we’re just “green marketing” or if it is real. If they start doing the same things that we do, will they still be profitable? The strongest thing I can tell them is look. In fact, let me go back.

I was on a panel with a bunch of surf-industry CEO’s. I was talking about how we use organically-grown cotton and recycle our clothing.

This guy said, “Well, we started doing some organic cotton t-shirts before the recession but then we had to stop.”

I said, “Well, what happened to your sales in the recession?”

“Well, they’re down 20%. “

I said, “Well, we grew 25% last year and we’re going to grow 30% this year in the middle of the recession.”

He doesn’t get it at all and doesn’t realize that in a recession, people become conservative, but they don’t mind paying more for a product that’ll last a long, long time and that’s multi-functional. They stop being silly. They stop buying fashion.

I’m working on another book called, “The Responsible Company.” It’s a how-to book, with a checklist of all the things that you have to think about if you’re trying to have a responsible company. I’m not saying sustainable company, because there’s no such thing as sustainability; but it’s The Responsible Company. Hopefully, we’ll get some other companies. Things are changing.

Walmart is the 11th largest economy in the world. There are only 10 countries larger than Walmart. They’re seriously greening their company. They’re starting with the Clothing Sustainability Index. They want to have every single product in a Walmart store with a grade for labor practices in making that product, for biodiversity that was destroyed, or whatever in making it. That is a revolution.

I always thought the revolution was going to start from the bottom. But it appears to be starting from the top. So, yes, business has to change. Politicians are saying that all we have to do is this and that and we’ll get back to business as usual – to the way the country was. But you know, countries have been going downhill ever since free trade and globalism. We can’t continue this. It’s not going to continue and the companies that recognize this….

I was on a panel with the chief marketing guy from Walmart and somebody asked him, “Why is Walmart doing this?” He said, “Well, we looked at the lifespan of all the large clothing companies and they rarely last for more than one generation. Look at Montgomery Wards, Sears Roebuck. We want to be here for a long time. We recognize that the new young people – the millennium generation all the way from 13 to 18 years old – they’re different. They don’t watch television so they still have a brain. They communicate among themselves by word of mouth. They don’t believe in advertising.”

That’s the new consumer and we have to be ready for those people if we want to be in business. I think the word’s going to get around that this is what you have to do to be in business these days, because it’s not ever going to be the same as it was.

FEMALE QUESTIONER  Thank you. I’m from Northern California working on what was once the most prolific river in the state, the Russian River. We’re in a life-and-death struggle right now against corporate wineries – international wineries that have moved into the Sonoma-Mendocino area and are killing our streams with the practices they’re using for the way that they’re growing grapes.

I started 18 years ago as a woman, with a without a degree, and with a strange name. I had this crazy idea that we would bring down the 200-year-old dams blocking over 1,000 miles of spawning ground. What saved my neck was the Elwha Dam information started coming out. Then I wasn’t considered so nuts. So, I have a deep appreciation for all the work that’s gone on with the Elwha. It has been a major contribution for everyone working on rivers. I really thank you and I hope you’ll keep putting out the information, because we’re all wondering what’s going to happen with the silt and how is the river going to recover. I hope that all of this will be filmed so that people can really see it.

Juvenile Salmon Migrating Through Olympia Washington

I had people say, “Well what makes you think the fish are going to come back when we take it down?” We had a federal judge say to us, “What are you going to do? You’re going to take the dams down and leave all that rubble there? It’s going to be even worse than it was [before].”

It’s really important, every little step that has been taken. When I saw you, Yvon, this January, climbing up over a rock and talking about bringing down dams, I just started crying. I was so excited that “Corporate America” was taking that kind of stand. America, big business in America, and successful business in America was paying attention. So, we really would love to have you come and work with us in our state.

YVON CHOUINARD  They said that in four generations of selective breeding, they could turn the fox into a lap pet – completely tame – breeding all the wildness completely out of it in four generations. Well, in five generations, hatchery fish forget how to spawn. You can’t tell me that a blueberry bought in the supermarket tastes the same as a wild huckleberry.

FEMALE QUESTIONER  Thank you. I just wanted to say thank you. I read your book, “Let My People Go Surfing” a couple of years ago. And then I went to college and took a business class. I was the only person that was truly irate about how business is done in this society. I wish you could write a business book that they’d teach in college about how to start businesses that are ecologically sound and let people have lives. I just want to say thank you and I look forward to reading your new book.

YVON CHOUINARD  Thanks for saying that. Actually that book, “Let My People Go Surfing,” is in eleven languages now – including Bulgarian. And it is being used in a lot of schools and universities in ethics classes and in business classes.

I’ve got a high-school education in auto mechanics, and the President of Yale School of Forestry came to visit me trying to convince me to become a Fellow at Yale for a year. They have the School of Forestry teaching environmental studies and forestry. But the School of Business didn’t teach any classes in environmental responsibility or responsibility to the planet. They saw my company was doing both and they hoped to meld the two together in one university. Of course, I didn’t do it – I couldn’t stand living in New Haven for a year.

But I think schools are starting to do that now. In Virginia Beach High School there’s a required environmental course to graduate and they use my book as a textbook.

ROB YOUNG  We’re almost out of time but there’s a topic that our guest tonight is very engaged in that hasn’t been mentioned at all. In the couple of minutes of

we have left, I was hoping you could tell everybody here about your work in South America’s Patagonia and the wild rivers there.

YVON CHOUINARD  You know, during the dictatorship in Chile, Pinochet gave the water rights to all the Chilean rivers to a Spanish company! Can you imagine that? Well, it’s kind of happening all over the world really. There are some countries around the world where if you collect the water that runs off your roof in a rainstorm, you’re a criminal because that water belongs to a private company. In Bolivia, they tried to privatize the water; but then they kicked out Bechtel.

If you own all the rivers in Chile, what are you going to do? Well, of course you’re going to dam them and create hydropower. You’re going to start from the bottom and build five dams and the longest transmission lines in the world. You don’t just go to Santiago for power, you go all the way up to the mines in northern Chile. It’s a really horrible situation. Once they get power lines in, they can proceed to dam every river in Chile.

We’ve been supporting a group called Rivers Without Dams. It’s a long story – but anyway, just recently they had 30,000 people out in the streets in Santiago protesting those dams. That’s the first time the Chilean people have ever really stood up and protested against the government, because if you did that 20 years ago, you were killed. This is something that the whole country is rallying around. Sixty-five percent of the Chilean people don’t want those dams. So there’s a chance that they may not be built. I don’t know. I hope they aren’t.

The era of dam-building is not over. It’s continuing all over the world and it’s an obsolete technology. Look at Chile. In the north, they have sun 365 days a year. They have constant waves so they could generate energy with wave power. They have huge tides in the south. They have winds like you can’t believe. They have multiple ways to create energy! But if you own the rivers, you’ve got to make money off of them. So, we’ve got to be alert no matter where we are. There’s evil everywhere.

In Ethiopia on the Omo River Basin‘s Gibe River: A Cascade of 5 Hydrodams.
Building begun 1988; Gibe 1,II & III built; Gibe IV in planning stage in 2017.

Posted by NWNL on July 17, 2017.
Transcription edited and condensed for clarity by Alison M. Jones.

All images © Alison M. Jones. All rights reserved.