Charitable or conniving? The seedy truth behind Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard’s donation

By Mason Berlinka

Published Nov 24, 2022 at 04:35 PM

Reading time: 3 minutes

Earlier this year, Patagonia announced that its founder was giving away his billions in the form of charitable donations. The cuddly, Subaru-driving, grandad billionaire Yvon Chouinard is known for his love for the environment and distaste for overzealous spending. It seemed like he was finally fed up with having cash pour out of his pockets. So, being one of the ‘good guys’, Chouinard did what any of us would do and gave away the money. All of it.

At first—and understandably so—the internet was smitten. The news sent Twitter into a frenzy. The perfectly cultivated image of Chouinard had worked, and we were all under its charm. Unfortunately, rose-tinted glasses have to come off at some point. Not even this well-meaning grandpa is free of scrutiny.

YouTuber Adam Conover, best known for his online series Adam Ruins Everything, has hit the Californian outdoor clothing brand with a takedown that might completely destroy the soft image the company has so desperately (and successfully so far) tried to build around its founder.

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Patagonia’s charity isn’t as wholesome as it seems on the surface

Conover’s big scoop? Patagonia’s altruistic endeavours aren’t all they seem to be.

Despite a glowing interview with the founder published in The New York Times in September 2022, Conover tells viewers that the charitable donation is actually a means to move funds around, tax-free, and keep the company in the hands of Chouinard’s family. And Conover certainly has the maths to back his claim, showing viewers that the traditional gifting of Chouinard’s wealth to his family would have cost him $1.2 billion in tax when calculated against the company’s estimated worth of $3 billion.

In other words, by avoiding this tax, the American rock climber is taking money away from the upkeep of the roads that transport his goods, the schools that educate his employees, and the hospitals and government-funded research that look after us in our old age.

So by “giving away the funds” to a charitable organisation, a mysterious and newly established organisation called The Holdfast Collective, Chouinard’s money stays out of the tax man’s pockets. You know, classic billionaire stuff. Not only that, but 2 per cent of the stock—the voting stock—went into a different company called the Patagonia Purpose Trust, which cost the family a mere $17 million in tax—peanuts when compared to the potential $1.2 billion he should have paid. This donation ensures the control of Patagonia remains in the hands of the family forever, under the guise of a generous and worthwhile trust.

The really interesting part of all this is the way in which The Holdfast Collective classifies itself. Conover explains that the trust is a 401(c)(4) class of non-profit, which basically gives it complete freedom to make unlimited political donations—they don’t even have to limit themselves to solely charitable donations like a 401(c)(3). I know, I was slightly confused too. All you really need to know is that the ‘good billionaire’ isn’t as good as he’s made himself out to be. None of them are.

Political influence of Patagonia aside, at the very least the company appears to stand for positive changes, like climate action and environmental protection. Although it’s a terrifying system and clothing brands really shouldn’t have any influence within the political sphere, they can do some good. What isn’t so good is that every billionaire in America can do the same thing—and they do just that, without a single care for the environment.

It’s not just Patagonia, this is a widespread billionaire problem

Barry Seid is one such example of the mega-rich giving away his wealth, only he didn’t give it away to an organisation that pledges positive environmental change. Instead, he handed his wealth over to one that is run by right-wing activist Leonard Leo. If you don’t know Leo, he’s one of the faces responsible for putting radical right conservatives in the Supreme Court. Mark Zuckerberg, the cyborg puppet behind Meta also did a similar thing in 2015, “giving away” his wealth in the form of private company investments.

The takeaway from all this? There’s no such thing as ‘good billionaires’. Even the most earnest of big earners are still trying to find ways to cheat the system and dodge paying their taxes. Imagine the kind of impact this money could have on society if it went through the proper channels. I guess all we can do is imagine, because it never fucking happens.

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