Written by Sam Watt – Edited by Julia Neves
Patagonia, the multi-billion-dollar outdoor clothing mogul, has recently undergone a change that could shake the world. Maybe you’ve heard about it; Yvon Chouinard, the 83 year-old environmentalist-turned-billionaire founder of Patagonia, transferred the company’s 98% non-voting stock to the environmental foundation Holdfast Collective. This will grant Holdfast all of Patagonia’s profits – which sums up to roughly $100 million per year (Bansal, 2022). The remaining 2% of stocks were transferred to the Patagonia Purpose Trust, and are essentially the voting stocks that hold the power to control the company. This was done with the aim to uphold Chouinard’s values and keep Patagonia on the right track.
Now, this is a lot of numbers, percentages, and legal terms that have ramifications far beyond what the best analyst could predict. Let’s break things down to get a clearer picture of the situation.
The first key to untangling all of this is to understand the role of the Holdfast Collective. Holdfast Is a 501(c)(4) foundation that works to, “advocate for causes and political candidates and make grants and investments”. Holdfast’s goal is to “fight environmental crises, protect nature and biodiversity, and support thriving communities”(Nonprofit, 2022). Due to the heavily monetary-based politics of our society, Chouinard’s move puts an extraordinary amount of power in the hands of a socially and environmentally devoted organization. This creates opportunities for the influence of wealth to be used to support other like-minded groups.
The 2% voting stock was sent to the Patagonia Purpose Trust, which will act as a moral and legal compass for the future of Patagonia. Chouinard has been known as a long time stand-out environmentalist that breaks the mold of the typical CEO-billionaire role. Under his guidance, Patagonia earned the reputation of an environmentally conscious business that uses its influence in both corporate and political scenes. Most notably in recent years, “The company emerged as one of the most vocal corporate opponents of Trump’s environmental policies” (Trafecante, 2022). It is an uncommon corporate decision to take such a strong political stance, as it can have major repercussions on partnerships, sponsors, and customers. The Patagonia Purpose Trust is designed to uphold these values beyond Chouinard’s lifetime.
Aside from the quantifiable results of the transition, many questions arise from this change. For instance, how will Holdfast use the money? Where will the trust take Patagonia? This decision will likely have a significant influence on the wider corporate world.
The decision to make a large company trust-controlled may be unfamiliar for North America, but it is not unheard of in other parts of the world. Scandinavia has seen this tactic used with large name brands such as Rolex, Ikea, and Heiniken (Bansal, 2022) – all of whom maintain a global reputation and have employed this trust-run stratagem for years. With the voluntary decision of Chouinard’s children to forgo inheritance of the company, the Patagonia Purpose Trust is almost like a pilot for the foundation-owned, trust-controlled corporate governance tactic in North America. But Patagonia has long been setting these precedents. It was the first B-corp: a ‘benefit corporation’ legally bound to create a positive material impact on society and the environment (Bansal, 2022). Following Patagonia’s lead, there are now 4,000 B-corps. Chouinard also co-founded ‘1% for the Planet’, an environmental organization that now has 5,000 company members.
Could this be the beginning of a new corporate era? Will Patagonia be the first of many multi-billion-dollar corporations to change their structure in this way, or will Chouinard’s efforts be swept away in the seemingly endless stream of ‘groundbreaking’ events? All to say: there are many unknowns in this particular case. Some even question whether this transition was really in good faith. Afterall, Patagonia did manage to evade $700 million in taxes with this change, and although they have acknowledged this while insisting that it wasn’t intentional, there are those who could argue against it. The environmental prospects are also as exciting as they are unknown: will Holdfast be able to use its newfound power effectively, or will it be shut down by the political and corporate opponents of heavy environmental protection?
I figure we will never know the true reach of such a monumental corporate event, but there is one thing we can be sure of: this is an incredibly exciting time to be involved in environmental protection initiatives; the possibilities are endless and the support is growing.
“Patagonia Founder Transfers Ownership to Boost Climate Advocacy.” The NonProfit Times, 16 Sept. 2022, https://www.thenonprofittimes.com/people/patagonia-founder-transfers-ownership-to-boost-climate-advocacy/.
Trafecante, Kate. “Patagonia’s Founder Transfers Ownership into Two Entities to Help Fight the Climate Crisis | CNN Business.” CNN, Cable News Network, 15 Sept. 2022, https://www.cnn.com/2022/09/14/business/patagonia-ownership/index.html.
Bansal, Tima. “Chouinard’s Donation of Patagonia Is Big and Bold, but Not New.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 24 Sept. 2022, https://www.forbes.com/sites/timabansal/2022/09/20/chouinards-donation-of-patagonia-is-big-and-bold-but-not-new/?sh=7dabdea13ecf.
“Patagonia’s Billionaire Founder Puts His Money Where His Mouth Is | Fox News Video.” Fox News, FOX News Network, 5 Sept. 2022, https://www.foxnews.com/video/6312387798112. Pendleton, Devon, and Ben Steverman. “Patagonia Founder Avoids $700 Million Tax Hit by Donating Company.” Bloomberg.com, Bloomberg, 15 Sept. 2022, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-09-15/patagonia-billionaire-who-gave-up-company-skirts-700-million-tax-hit.