The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Finally, a billionaire willing to smack back at capitalism

People walk past a Patagonia store on Greene Street on Sept. 14 in New York City. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)
4 min

There’s rarely a good reason to cheer for a billionaire. But for Yvon Chouinard, it might be worth suspending that rule.

Chouinard, founder of the outdoor apparel brand Patagonia — valued at $3 billion — has given his company away for the cause of protecting the Earth.

According to a remarkable statement released by Chouinard on Wednesday, titled “Earth is now our only shareholder,” 100 percent of Patagonia’s voting stock will be transferred to a trust created to protect the company’s values, and 100 percent of its nonvoting stock has gone to a nonprofit organization dedicated to combating climate change and protecting undeveloped land around the world. The Chouinard family (his wife and two adult children were involved in and supported the decision) will end up paying $17.5 million in gift taxes on their donation.

It’s an unusual move — exceptional, really. And the exception highlights an unhealthy reality of our wealth-obsessed, capitalist system: It often requires more intention and effort to give away money than to passively amass billions.

Why is unloading a fortune so unusual, in a country that has minted 50 new billionaires in the past year alone?

Structural forces, for one. Our economy allows firms to grow and accrue capital with fewer and fewer restrictions, and to extract huge profits. The small number of people who have equity in these companies see their wealth swell at near-exponential rates, often faster than they know how to spend it or give it away.

Liquidating stock or equity has its risks, too. Chouinard didn’t want to take Patagonia public because he knew the market doesn’t usually reward efforts to do the right thing. As he explained in his statement, “Even public companies with good intentions are under too much pressure to create short-term gain at the expense of long-term vitality and responsibility.”

In other words: Capitalism holds neither employees nor noble missions in high regard.

And of course, having money is nice. It provides ease, access, the experience of luxury. But even the most indulgent billionaire would have trouble spending down their fortune in a lifetime — or several lifetimes.

Yet these are, largely, secondary matters. The reason most of the ultrawealthy don’t give away their fortunes is because they simply don’t want to.

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“The sad truth is that lots of really wealthy people are reluctant to let go of their wealth, even if they claim they aren’t,” Benjamin Soskis, a historian of philanthropy at the Urban Institute, told me. “Their identities are so tied up in their status as ‘wealthy people’ that it adds a weight, puts the brakes on the speed of their dispossession.”

Especially in the United States, which runs on a mythology of self-creation and individual achievement, money and status intertwine at a deep level. We mistakenly equate wealth with worth, assuming the more of it you have, the smarter and more special you must be. While we nominally celebrate generosity, we goggle at the Forbes billionaires list every year (which, yes, includes Jeff Bezos, owner of The Post).

“It’s no accident that the Giving Pledge” — Bill Gates and Warren Buffett’s much-lauded commitment to give the majority of their wealth to charitable causes — “doesn’t have a stricter sense of timeliness,” Soskis said.

And even if those billions have been accumulating basically without anyone’s help, we tend to assume that the rich have some innate expertise as to how that money might best be spent.

Chouinard and his family are unusual in their ability to ignore — or at least not to be controlled by — this insistent messaging. (Apparently, being on the Forbes list was in part what spurred Chouinard to offload his fortune: It “really, really pissed me off,” he told the New York Times.)

But we should be looking for ways to make the outliers the norm — to celebrate altruism and virtue as much as we do winning at capitalism.

The first step might simply be to publicly celebrate those who go above and beyond, who engage in real philanthropy within their lifetimes, rather than pushing it off into the future.

“Hopefully,” Chouinard told the Times, “this will influence a new form of capitalism that doesn’t end up with a few rich people and a bunch of poor people.”

For once, a billionaire is doing something worthy of our applause.