The $575 million outdoor-clothing company Patagonia recently took on a new role: investor. 

In May, the Ventura, California-based business announced it was creating a $20 million fund to invest in innovative start-ups in the areas of sustainable food, water, and energy. Yvon Chouinard, who founded Patagonia in 1973, has long been an advocate of environmental sustainability. 

Since 2002, his company has donated 1 percent of its annual sales to eco-friendly organizations. Patagonia also carefully tracks (and strives to reduce) its environmental footprint.

Recently, Chouinard began dabbling in sustainable fishing, too. Patagonia now sells salmon jerky--caught selectively, using methods that protect endangered fish. "Yvon has fished his whole life and has seen the damage done by industrialized fishing," says Rose Marcario, CEO of Patagonia Works, a new holding company that will manage the $20 million fund.

She has already been inundated with inquiries, including some from venture capital firms looking to co-invest. Marcario, who will spend the next several months vetting requests, expects to fund about five or six companies that support social and environmental causes.

"Our planet is in ecological danger right now," she says. "People think business is partly to blame. But we think business can inspire solutions."