Increasingly these days, it is companies and company leaders—and not advocacy groups—that are moving the needle when it comes to “causes.” One need only look at the recent kerfuffle in Indiana and Arkansas over “religious freedom” bills that many found discriminatory in nature. In Indiana, the signed bill was amended after an uproar that really gained momentum only when the CEO of Apple, Tim Cook, publicly spoke out against it. The bill in Arkansas was also amended—this time before being signed by the state’s governor—after the home state mega-retailer, Walmart, expressed its opposition to it.
Certainly the work that advocacy groups do on our behalf will never go unappreciated. But their causes and voices are amplified to a much higher level when joined by high-profile companies that, with their money and influence, sometimes push these issues over the top.
Thankfully, in the world of fly fishing we have our own concerned companies that not only speak out on the environmental issues that affect our sport, but also take tangible stakes in the battle. Three companies in particular—Orvis, Costa Del Mar, and Patagonia—have turned clean water, healthy habitats, and robust fish stocks into economic priorities, putting money, marketing, and manpower into the effort. This work is something that often drives our own individual purchasing decisions. We—the consumers—vote for or against the protection of our resources with our dollars.
Fawzi Ibrahim, in his book, Capitalism Versus Planet Earth, contends that “humanity faces a stark choice: Save the planet and ditch capitalism, or save capitalism and ditch the planet.” Orvis, Costa, and Patagonia just might be proving him wrong by demonstrating that there is some middle way: Sure, these companies sell products, and their green initiatives are certainly good for public relations. But they also do real, effective work on behalf of the planet . . . and us.
Making A Difference
Perk Perkins, the CEO of Orvis, says his conservation roots came from his father, Leigh, who bought the company in 1965. “My father is a lifelong -conservationist and was a longtime board member of Trout Unlimited,” he says. “He had a way of explaining complex national and regional environmental issues in an easy-to-understand manner.”
But it was the son who kicked Orvis’s conservation efforts into overdrive. In 1989, three years before his father stepped down as CEO, Perkins came up with idea of giving away 5 percent of the company’s pretax profits to mostly conservation causes and organizations. (Roughly 85 percent of the money Orvis sets aside goes to fish-and-wildlife conservation; the rest is funneled to canine and community causes where Orvis has corporate and shipping headquarters.)
The impetus for the idea, Perkins says, came from Orvis customers. “I had the impression that they cared deeply about protecting the resource, but they didn’t know how best to do it,” he says. “There were lots of people asking them for money, but they didn’t have the time to do the proper research. So I thought, ‘We’ve got the contacts, we can find unbiased authorities who will help us identify the most effective causes, and our customers trust us.’”
What ensued was the beginning of Orvis’s highly visible and impactful donations to various conservation causes. In time, the company added another component to the giving: a customer match, which comes from customer purchases, direct donations, and an option to donate money at the point of purchase.
The matching program works like this: Orvis pledges $30,000 to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to help clean up the Bay, and then asks its customers to match that grant. “And even if we fall short in the customer match, we usually just go ahead and make up the difference on the full match anyway,” says Bill Eyre, who heads up Orvis’s conservation efforts. Since Perkins hatched the 5 percent idea more than 25 years ago, Orvis has donated more than $18 million.
The waters protected or enhanced by Orvis over the years include such name-brand rivers as the Jefferson, Madison, Deschutes, Missouri, Clark Fork, South Fork of the Snake, Au Sable (Michigan), Battenkill, and Penobscot, and bigger bodies of water, like the Everglades and the Chesapeake Bay. Orvis has also continually supported conservation groups like Trout Unlimited, the Atlantic Salmon Federation, and the Bonefish & Tarpon Trust.
In recent years, Orvis has ramped up its conservation efforts. The company took a strong stand in 2013 against the Pebble Mine project that would have devastated wild fish stocks in Alaska’s Bristol Bay. And three years ago, Orvis formed a partnership with TU, called 1,000 Miles Campaign, an ambitious ongoing stream restoration project with the goal of reconnecting 1,000 miles of streams all over the country.
Perkins says one of his biggest goals in the coming years is to concentrate on what he calls “regulated access” to our waters. “We believe in augmenting access to fisheries, but also believe access is best when regulated to the pressure a fishery can withstand,” he says. “One of the biggest concerns I have for the long run is over ‘recreational conflict.’ In other words, how unregulated use and access will dumb down the experience and therefore the support needed for sustained conservation.”
Orvis, a privately held company with an estimated $350 million in annual revenues, has also recently begun to concentrate on its own environmental footprints, in its stores and warehouses, by doing in-house energy audits. The next step for the company, says Eyre, is to introduce more sustainability in its own products and supply chains.
For Perkins, the benefits of his company’s conservation efforts are a no-brainer. “In pure dollars and cents, what we do is a great investment in the future. The more trout streams we have, the better our business will be,” he says.
But it goes beyond just that. “We have to pay the bills and we have goals to meet, of course, but there’s not a lot of glory in merely winning a bigger percentage of the customer’s credit card,” says Perkins. “In terms of what keeps up motivated and makes us get to work early in the morning, it’s believing that you make a difference.”
Perkins says he’s reminded of that difference whenever he goes fishing. “You go out in Grand Teton National Park, and you think, ‘Thank God Rockefeller and those guys protected all of this. Otherwise it would look like the other parts of Jackson Hole.’ We owe so much of our amazing enjoyment of the outdoors to people who protected land and water so many years ago. To me, our efforts are just paying it forward the same way it was paid forward to us.”
Costa Del Mar
Costa was founded in 1983 by a group of fishermen who had grown frustrated with the strain that cheap, drugstore-bought sunglasses were putting on their eyes. One of the company’s very first moves was conservation-minded: Costa donated some of its high-quality sunglasses to workers in a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) sanctuary. A decade later, the company staked out its stance on conservation matters by backing a proposed ban of commercial gillnets in Florida. The move was controversial and risky: At the time, many of Costa’s customers were commercial fishermen who stridently opposed the bill. Despite death threats to Costa’s management, the company stood firm in its commitment to the long-term health of Florida’s fish stocks, and the bill passed.
In the early 2000s, with the arrival of current CEO Chas MacDonald, and Al Perkinson, who is in charge of Costa’s conservation initiatives, the company began to vastly expand its environmental efforts. “It is central to everything we do,” says Perkinson.
Costa’s conservation approach is very much community-specific. The reason? “Within the fishing world, there are lots of different types of anglers, from the offshore guys to the bass fishermen,” says Perkinson. Within the company, certain employees are assigned to specific areas of conservation outreach, which has resulted in a wide range of causes and fish species that have received donations.
When NOAA wanted to further its research on pelagic species, Costa backed its “Adopt a Billfish” campaign. Costa donated money to the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society (B.A.S.S.) when that organization wanted to start a scholarship program for college students seeking degrees in natural resources, and partnered with Trout Unlimited to form trout-fishing clubs at colleges in the U.S., part of an effort to attract more young people to the sport.
In 2010, Costa began working with the Bonefish & Tarpon Trust, starting Project Permit, an initiative designed to gain information about the stocks, migratory patterns, and growth rates of a fish that had never really been studied before. In 2011, the country singer, Kenny Chesney, began designing sunglasses for the company, which has raised more that $200,000 for the Coastal Conservation Association. Costa has also partnered with OCEARCH in an extensive shark research program.
Costa, though, also has its own fully funded and marketed projects. For the past few years, Costa has sponsored a party for fraternities at the University of Alabama that has raised more than $200,000 for conservation.
Costa’s Project Guyana was begun to help that small nation develop a healthy and sustainable sport fishery. And perhaps the company’s most ambitious project is something called Kick Plastic, which encourages people to reduce their consumption of plastics, which have, of course, polluted our oceans and other waters.
The Kick Plastic campaign is part of Costa’s own “long look in the mirror,” says Perkinson. After all, many of the company’s sunglasses are made with plastics. Perkinson says Costa has recently gone through a thorough internal review of its own plastic consumption. The result has been a concentrated effort to minimize the use of plastics in the shipping process, whether the goods are coming from their plants or going out to their customers. More intriguing is an initiative the company embarked upon three years ago: the conversion of its entire product line into a biodegradable plastic made from a castor plant. Roughly 30 percent of Costa’s product line is already made from the biodegradable plastics, a percentage that’s designed to grow every year until it reaches 100 percent. “The idea is that if your glasses fall into the ocean, they will sink to the bottom and within 18 months, be completely gone,” says Perkinson.
Costa CEO MacDonald says: “I think there’s a moral obligation for not just fishing companies, but all companies in general, to give back to society.” He also sees his company’s conservation commitment as a distinct advantage in the marketplace. “In today’s world, people are much more interested and motivated to work for a company that stands for something more than just making money. The conservation makes conducting business a lot more fun,” he says. “And without access to fishing, high-quality water, and strong fish stocks, well, our customers have a lot less fun doing what they do.”
MacDonald won’t divulge Costa’s overall conservation giving, but says the company is “well within the 1 percent of revenues mark.” With estimated annual revenues of $125 million, that means Costa is earmarking around $1 million a year for conservation.
Costa is owned by the publicly traded French prescription glasses company, Essilor. MacDonald says the parent company “celebrates what we do,” and even holds an annual in-house sustainability contest. “We reach millions of people a year with our conservation message,” he says. “We’re hoping people embrace the things we do. We don’t look for a return. We know that fish species are being helped, that we are improving water quality, that we are becoming a catalyst for others to do more, and that we are heightening awareness whether people buy our products or not.”
Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard says he recently looked up the number of manufacturers in the fishing industry and found that there were some 33,000 of them (not including retailers). He then cross-referenced that list to see how many were members of 1% For the Planet, the initiative that he and Blue Ribbon Flies owner Craig Mathews founded in 2002, which encourages businesses of all stripes to follow Patagonia’s lead and donate 1 percent of annual revenues to environmental causes. What he discovered was disheartening: Only 13 of the manufacturers were members. “You’d think that an industry that sees a direct result from more fish in rivers would also see the responsibility they have to protect those fish and their habitat,” says Chouinard. “It’s irresponsible.”
A shot across the bow? You bet. But Chouinard is able to do that since he walks the walk. Patagonia, founded in 1973, may be the most environmentally friendly company in the outdoor space, or in any other space, for that matter. Chouinard’s conservation ethic is baked right into the company mission statement: “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.” Says Chouinard, who owns the company with his wife, Malinda: “It’s the reason Patagonia exists. I’m a ‘doombat,’ as Doug Tompkins calls it. I’m a total pessimist. The fate of our planet is in jeopardy. There’s nothing I can do that’s more important than to try to help.”
Since 1996, Patagonia, which has estimated annual revenues of $600 million, has donated more than $60 million to 1,500 or so environmental organizations, ranging from small river conservation groups in Alabama to Trout Unlimited’s efforts in Alaska. Yvon and Malinda each give away 50 percent of their salaries to environmental causes.
But for Patagonia, giving away money is just the start. Some of its most popular fly-fishing products are made entirely of eco-friendly materials. The Tropic Comfort Hoody II is 100 percent recycled polyester. The Island Hopper shirt is a blend of organic cotton and recycled polyester.
All of the Patagonia’s products are recycled. Some of the used, worn-out products made out of unrecycled material (like waders) are given to another company, where they are made into wallets and packs (known as “upcycling.”) Other products that are made of 100 percent recyclable material are also given away and become things like carpets (known as “downcycling”.) And recently, Patagonia has begun what’s known as “closed-loop” recycling, turning some of its products that are made from 100 percent recycled material into new Patagonia products. Chouinard also emphasizes the durability of his company’s products. In some ways, it’s as important as the recycling. “We found that if we can keep a product in use for just an extra nine months, we can reduce our related carbon waste and water footprints 20-30 percent,” says Bart Bonime, Patagonia’s director of fishing.
As an example, Chouinard points to the famous ad that Patagonia ran in The New York Times on Black Friday a few years ago, which featured a picture of a Patagonia jacket and the tag line: “Don’t Buy This Jacket.” Says Chouinard: “We did it out of guilt. We all know we have to consume less. The crazy thing is that we sold more jackets from that ad. My spin on it was that at least they bought our jackets and not ones made in an irresponsible way.”
Environmentally friendly products and grants still don’t tell the entire Patagonia conservation story, though. Patagonia’s ethos has influenced several larger corporations, including Walmart, with whom they worked to help the retailer reduce its packaging and water use. But perhaps the most significant thing Patagonia has done is to create entirely eco-friendly supply chains, for recyclable polyester and nylon and, most notably, for organic cotton. (Cotton is among the least eco-friendly products in the clothing world, often grown with pesticides and treated with formaldehyde.) Part of the impact of the new supply chains is symbolic: Patagonia demonstrated that it can be done without killing the bottom line. “Cleaning up supply chains is an integral part of being a responsible company,” says Chouinard. “It’s something everyone must do.”
Chouinard sees a direct correlation between Patagonia’s conservation efforts and its bottom line. “The new customers, the millennials, they see right through companies that aren’t doing anything. You see it in the surf industry, with Billabong and Quicksilver struggling. It hasn’t yet occurred to them that they should be doing something for the planet. Our business has never been better, and I think it’s a direct result of our customers being aware of what we do.”
Chouinard says he’s recently had a revelation, akin to the ones apparently had by Apple’s Tim Cook and Walmart. “We’ve been content in the past to give money away to these other organizations and to let them do all the work,” he says. “But I’m finding out that we have so much more power when we do it ourselves.” He came to that conclusion, he says, when Patagonia produced and marketed its own film, DamNation, which is a clarion call to take down obsolete dams in rivers.
Chouinard says that his company spent $1 million in the making and marketing of the film. “And we didn’t make a penny on it, but several dams came down because of it. We could have given that money to American Rivers, but it wouldn’t have been as powerful. It’s not enough for us to just give out money. We have to take a stand.” Chouinard’s next film target: Hatcheries and the harm they cause. “That will piss off some fishermen, I’m sure,” he says.
Chouinard admits that he has a personal stake in his company’s conservation efforts, especially when it comes to fly fishing. “I love to fish, so part of this is self-serving,” he says with a laugh.
But it’s also true that Patagonia’s ongoing efforts—along with those of Orvis and Costa—serve us fly fishermen as well.
Monte Burke is a staff writer at Forbes where he has written more than 100 profiles of chief executives, sports figures, and entrepreneurs. He has also written for the The New York Times, Outside, Men’s Journal, Audubon, and many other magazines. He is also the author of The New York Times bestselling book Saban: The Making of a Coach (Simon & Schuster, 2015)”
Fly Fisherman Conservationist of the Year
Yvon Chouinard, Perk Perkins, and Al Perkinson are the three titans of global conservation recognized in this story, but the many projects they (and others) fund can’t operate without the massive effort of boots-on-the-ground volunteers working to remove trash, install fish-holding structures, educate the public, tag fish, record data, dig holes, move logs, lift boulders, take samples, and generally get their hands slimy or dirty. Many of the dedicated and selfless volunteers doing this work are never recognized for their efforts, and most of their projects suffer from chronic underfunding. You can help change that.
Fly Fisherman is now accepting nominations for the 2017 Conservationist of the Year, an award that goes to an individual whose volunteer work within a conservation organization has significantly impacted the protection or enhancement of important fisheries habitat in the previous year. We are not looking for presidents, CEOs, donors, or board members. We’d like to recognize people working at the grassroots level on specific projects in coldwater, warmwater, or saltwater environments. This is an award for the little guy who is doing big things in the field.
Our nine-person selection committee will judge the Conservationist of the Year based on the passion, longevity, dedication, successes, and the impact of the nominees, and we’ll name the winner in the first issue of 2017.
Sage, with support from RIO and Redington, will make a donation of $10,000 to an organization designated by the Conservationist of the Year recipient, and the award winner will also receive a Sage ONE rod inscribed with both their name and the title “Conservationist of the Year.”
It only take a few minutes to explain how someone is making a difference and why they should be Conservationist of the Year. FLY FISHERMAN’s 2017 Conservationist of the Year award will go to an individual whose volunteer work within a conservation organization has significantly impacted the protection or enhancement of important fisheries habitat in the previous year. We are not looking for presidents, CEOs, board members, or financial donors. We’re looking for donors who contribute time and/or sweat. We’d like to recognize people working at the grassroots level on specific projects in coldwater, warmwater, or saltwater environments. This is an award for the little guy who is doing big things in the field.
Click here for the downloadable nomination form. Completed nominations must be received by June 30, 2016. Send to: email@example.com or by mail to: Selection Committee, Fly Fisherman Magazine, 6385 Flank Drive Suite 800, Harrisburg, PA 17112.