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Ex-blacksmith hammers home green message

By Joe Vaccerello, CNN
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Keeping up with 'green' standards
  • Yvon Chouinard started his working life as a blacksmith 50 years ago
  • An avid rock climber, he used to make equipment for himself and friends
  • Founded his company, Patagonia, after a trip to the region of the same name
  • Company has strong environmental ethic, uses 100% organic cotton

Ventura, California (CNN) -- Yvon Chouinard opened up the old corrugated metal shed that sat in the middle of the work campus.

Inside, some of the equipment dated back to the 1920s. Much of the machinery hadn't been touched for decades.

"This is a coal forge, with a blower, you know. Then I went to a gas forge. Started out by hammering everything by hand," Chouinard said as he gripped the dusty metal.

Fifty years ago in this very shed, Chouinard started out in business as a blacksmith, hammering out rock climbing gear. A dirty beginning for a man destined to run a leading clean and green corporation.

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Chouinard is the founder of the sportswear and outdoor gear retailer Patagonia. "They call us the coolest company on the planet," Chouinard said laughing.

Patagonia is not only cool -- it's also a money maker. Sales last year were over $300 million and are projected rise even further next year. It has more than 1,200 employees around the world. He and his wife are the sole owners.

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Chouinard gave us a tour of Patagonia's Ventura, California headquarters. "This is the design center here. This is where the most interesting part of the company is, well, for me anyway. "

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Rob Bondurant, Patagonia's vice president of marketing, told us that Chouinard's previous profession still comes into play. "Yvon's still very involved in the process of design and he's a tinkerer, he's a blacksmith, he loves playing with this hands, so when he is in the office, you won't find him crunching spreadsheets, you'll find him up in the design studio looking at ways to design a better product."

Patagonia's success and image as a retailer come not only from its designs but also its environmental model.

Concerns about the level of pesticide use inspired Patagonia to take the radical step in 1996 of making its entire industrial-grown cotton clothing line organic.

"If you go to cotton growing areas it's a dead zone out there. There's nothing alive -- there's no bugs, no beetles, no weeds, and crop dusters are going over head. I said I don't want to be in business if I have to use this product," Chouinard said.

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Chouinard never intended to be a businessman. He started making climbing equipment for himself and his friends in the 1950s and sold the surplus to support his passion for mountain climbing. Making profit was a bonus.

"We always thought businessmen were grease balls. We never wanted to be businessmen," he said.

In 1968, Chouinard and his friends went on a six-month road trip to the foot of South America. There they skied, surfed and climbed their way through the wilderness of Patagonia.

It was not long after that that Chouinard created the clothing company that got its name from the region and tied the firm's image to the environment.

Chouinard explained: "I got real concerned about the fate of the planet, and I figured that the best thing I could do would be to use this company to do some good."

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Since 1985, Patagonia has donated 1 percent of sales to environmental causes and has recently formed an alliance with other businesses to do the same.

At the company's headquarters they practice what they preach. The parking lot is covered by solar panels providing the campus with a portion of its electricity.

Employees are on a flexi-time schedule that allows them to take as much personal time they need away from their desk, as long as they get the work done.

Chouinard got his start in mountain climbing by rappelling for endangered falcon in his youth. And Patagonia continues the tradition on the campus with a rehabilitation center for birds of prey.

More than 10 owls were in the makeshift raptor rehabilitation center when CNN visited. Chouinard said that caring for wild animals is not only good for the environment, it can also be instructive for business.

"There's some good lessons in business, because you know, to train a falcon or hawk you can't slap them around when they're doing something wrong, it's all positive reinforcement," he said.

Employees share in the vision that Chouinard has created for Patagonia.

Rob Bondurant, who works on the company's marketing team, told us: "Everybody that works at this campus truly believes in the mission of the company, which is, you know to build the best product, to cause the least amount of harm and to use business to inspire and implement solutions for the environmental crisis, which is a mouthful but at the end of the day, that's truly what we're after."

The unconventional Chouinard and his devoted staff share the vision that what's good for the planet is also good for business.