With a title like “Let My People Go Surfing” you wouldn’t expect to find this book in the business section. However, as the saying goes … don’t judge a book by its cover. Dive in and you will find that the unique and common sense business philosophy of Yvon Chouinard, founder and owner of Patagonia, is anything but common.
In recent years, there has been a surge of companies from all business sectors that are discovering that embracing environmentally safe and sustainable business practices is not only good for the planet, but it can give them a competitive advantage and benefit their bottom line. In fact, it turns out that “going green” is saving companies hundreds of millions of dollars according to corporate leaders and a recent report released by the nonprofit, Environmental Defense Fund. However, this is not new news for Patagonia’s Chouinard, who has been walking the talk for several decades now.
Chouinard got his start as a mountain climber at age fourteen when he became a member of the Southern California Falconry Club, which trained hawks and falcons to hunt. Their leader taught them to rappel down cliffs to reach the falcon nests. The boys loved climbing and began to practice on the sandstone cliffs on the west end of the San Fernando Valley in California. From there, they set their sights on Tahquitz Rock in Palm Springs, and eventually Yosemite. At the time, climbers were using soft iron spikes, called pitons, which were driven into the mountain to secure their ropes. Unfortunately, the soft iron variety had to be left in the mountain, and often hundreds of pitons were required for each climb. Chouinard resolved to find a better way. After meeting Swiss climber, John Salathé, who made hard-iron pitons from Model A axles, Chouinard decided to start making his own reusable equipment. In 1957, he bought a used coal-fired forge and taught himself how to blacksmith. He made his first pitons from an old harvester blade and tested them on Lost Arrow Chimney and the North Face of Sentinel Rock in Yosemite.
He could forge two pitons an hour and charged $1.50 each. Soon, the word spread and friends were buying Chouinard’s steel pitons as fast as he could make them. He built a shop in his parent’s backyard, forging pitons during the winter and spending the rest of the year climbing. He sold his gear out of the back of his car to cover his expenses. Eventually, the demand overtook his supply and he had to start using more sophisticated machinery. He partnered with Tom Frost, a fellow climber and aeronautical engineer, and they refined their manufacturing process further and also sold their wares from a catalog.
Ironically, this business was to thrive and grow, despite his dim view of consumer culture. In “Let My People Go Surfing” Chouinard admits, “We took special pride in the fact that climbing rocks and icefalls had no economic value in society.” He and his fellow climbers were rebels who believed that “corporations were the source of all evil”. In the book, he explains, “The natural world was our home. Our heroes were Muir, Thoreau, and Emerson and the European climbers Gaston Rebuffat, Ricardo Cassin, and Herman Buhl. We were like the wild species living on the edge of an ecosystem – adaptable, resilient, and tough.” … all important attributes this “reluctant” businessman would later use to build a wildly successful retail empire, beginning with Chouinard Equipment, and later Patagonia.
By 1970, Chouinard Equipment had become the largest supplier of climbing gear in the United States. However, an unforeseen obstacle lay in their path. Their climbing equipment was beginning to chip away at the rock walls, leaving each climber with a less natural experience than the one before; and leaving the mountain permanently scarred in the process. This would be the first true test of Chouinard’s environmental resolve. Although pitons were the mainstay of their business, they eliminated them completely. As a replacement, they introduced aluminum chocks (wedges that can be inserted into cracks by hand rather than hammer). They included an editorial on the environmental hazards of pitons in their 1972 catalog and also added a 14-page essay by Sierra climber, Doug Robinson on the proper use of chocks, whose clarion call for clean climbing was met with enthusiasm by customers around the world. Almost immediately, the demand for pitons declined and they were selling chocks as fast as they could make them. They had taken a risk and customers responded to their authenticity with ever-increasing loyalty. They realized they were on to something.
Although Chouinard had been making corduroy knickers and double-seated shorts for years, his first true venture into the clothing business started with a rugby shirt that he bought on a winter hiking trip to Scotland. Constructed to withstand the rigorous game of rugby, it was perfect for climbing. The jersey was visually appealing with brightly colored stripes, and tough, with a collar that protected his neck from the climbing equipment. Back in the States, Chouinard wore it around fellow climbers and everybody wanted one. A new trend emerged. Soon they were also selling polyurethane rain ponchos and other outerwear suitable for climbing. They began to realize that clothing sales might be a way to support their marginally profitable hardware sales.
Patagonia Clothing was incorporated in 1979, and later became Patagonia, Inc. Named for the sparsely populated region at the southern end of South America that encompasses the southern section of the Andes Mountains; Chouinard felt this was a fitting label for his new company. He writes,
“To most people, especially then, Patagonia was a name like Timbuktu or Shangri-la — far-off, interesting, not quite on the map. Patagonia brings to mind, as we once wrote in a catalog introduction, ‘romantic visions of glaciers tumbling into fjords, jagged windswept peaks, gauchos and condors.’ Our intent was to make clothing for those rugged southern Andes/Cape Horn conditions. It’s been a good name for us and it can be pronounced in every language.”
The next decade proved to be pivotal for Patagonia. The company gained popularity, not only in the outdoor community but also with mainstream fashion consumers as well. Chouinard notes, “From the mid-1980’s to 1990, sales grew from twenty million to one hundred million dollars. Malinda (his wife) and I were not personally any wealthier because we kept the profits in the company. In many ways growth was exciting.” He adds, “We were surrounded by friends who could dress however they wanted. People ran or surfed at lunch or played volleyball in the sandpit at the back of the building. … We never had to make a break from the traditional corporate culture that makes businesses hidebound and inhibits creativity. For the most part, we simply made the effort to hold our own particular tradition.”
However, new challenges lay ahead for the free spirited Patagonians. At home and abroad, they were seeing the devastating effects that human activity was having on the wilderness they loved. They became increasingly aware of the efforts being made by small groups of individuals to save these areas. To make matters worse, the 1990-91 recession hit, and Patagonia’s sales fell far short of established goals. In 1991, the firm’s primary lender drastically reduced its credit line, resulting in a severe cash pinch. After first freezing hiring and nonessential travel, the company was forced to lay off 20% of its work force.
The Patagonia “Philosophies”
During this time period, Chouinard became increasingly uncomfortable with Patagonia’s direction and he searched for a business philosophy that would work for their company. Patagonia had grown beyond its original niche as an outdoor marketer and Chouinard was concerned that it no longer matched his personal values.
Chouinard and his wife began to rethink Patagonia’s direction. Seeking professional advice, they flew to Florida to meet with a business consultant. A naturalist at heart, Chouinard explained to the consultant that he was concerned about the fate of the environment and was using Patagonia primarily to make money to use for environmental causes. The consultant advised that if this was his true goal, he should sell the business, keep a little for himself, and set up a foundation with the rest. The consultant’s suggestion was unsettling to the Chouinard’s, who returned to California with more questions than answers.
Chouinard took a group of his top managers to Argentina for a “walkabout” in the real Patagonia. As they roamed the mountains, they asked themselves questions like – Why were they in business in the first place? And, what kind of company did they want to be? And, most important, what could they do to minimize the environmental harm they caused as a company? They concluded that the money the company was contributing to environmental causes barely made a dent in the world’s problems and that the greatest good they could do would be to develop Patagonia as an example for other companies to emulate. Their idea was that companies could educate consumers to become environmentally responsible and, in turn, consumers could influence government policy.
Upon their return, they formed a board of directors comprised of trusted friends and advisors, and one member, author and ecologist, Jerry Mander, put into words the values that would became the foundation for the Patagonia “philosophies” as they applied to every aspect of their business, including product design, production, distribution, image, financial, human resource, management and their environmental philosophy. All future endeavors would be guided by their mission statement, “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.”
“Build the Best Product, Cause No Unnecessary Harm”
Patagonia’s financial setback was a reality check that forced them to take stock of their operations across the board. Through the process of self-examination, they realized that if they were going to be part of the solution, they first needed to take responsibility for their own negative impact.
Chouinard vowed to examine everything Patagonia made, and resolved to do it all more responsibly. He even changed materials, switching in 1996 from conventional to organic cotton because it was less harmful to the environment – even though it initially tripled his supply costs. He created fleece jackets made entirely from recycled soda bottles. He vowed to create products durable enough and timeless enough that people could replace them less often, reducing waste.
“Use Business to Inspire and Implement Solutions to the Environmental Crisis”
No matter how well intentioned, Patagonia’s founder realized that everything they made created some waste and pollution. Therefore, he felt that the company had a responsibility to “pay for their sins until such a time that they hope they can stop sinning”. Patagonia had already begun pledging to give 2% of their profits (before taxes) to select non-profit environmental groups in the early 1980’s. As they became aware of more problems, they increased that amount until they had reached 10% by 1985. At that time, other companies had followed Patagonia’s lead and began similar programs, but this approach had many loopholes and ways for these companies to avoid giving. In 1996, Patagonia decided to increase the challenge by pledging 1% percent of their sales (not profits), whether they made money or not. This led to the creation of the 1% for the Planet initiative, an alliance of businesses pledging to donate at least 1% of sales toward active efforts to protect and restore our natural environment.
The “Let My People Go Surfing” Philosophy
Over the years, Chouinard has not only made waves in the marketplace, but his innovative human resources philosophies and management style have also overflowed into the workplace. The Patagonia employees who work in the offices, stores and distribution centers are paid fairly and receive good benefits. Many share the company’s values and are active in environmental and community causes.
Today, Patagonia is well known for its progressive work environment which includes generous health care, subsidized and on-site child care, flexible work schedules (yes, employees are encouraged to surf on company time when the waves are high at the local surf point – as long as deadlines are met) and paid time off for environmental internships. In fact, Patagonia supports environmental causes to the extent that they allow employees to leave their jobs for up to two months to work for an environmental group while still receiving a Patagonia paycheck and benefits. Furthermore, on the outside chance that an employee is arrested in an act of non-violent civil disobedience while supporting a cause, the company will even post bail under certain circumstances. Chouinard notes in his book,
“A certain void exists now with the decline of so many good institutions that used to guide our lives, such as social clubs, religions, athletic teams, neighborhoods, and nuclear families, all of which had a unifying effect. They gave us a sense of belonging to a group, working toward a common goal. People still need an ethical center, a sense of their role in society. A company can help fill this void if it shows its employees and its customers that it understands its own ethical responsibilities and then can help them respond to their own.”
Common Sense Conclusions
So what’s the bottom line? I believe the true bottom line of any business should be made in terms of common sense, as well as dollars and cents. As Chouinard notes, “There is no business to be done on a dead planet.” The continued viability of a business is unsustainable in the long-term if the resources it relies upon to stay in business are not managed responsibly … and that includes its human resources. And as every good surfer knows, balance is key. Companies should care about that more.
I hope you will consider reading this wonderful book. Chouinard’s philosophies and anecdotes will remain with you long after the last page is turned. His authenticity has inspired me to examine my own.
Thanks for reading.
“A master in the art of living draws no sharp distinction between his work and his play; his labor and his leisure; his mind and his body; his education and his recreation. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his own vision of excellence through whatever he is doing, and leaves others to determine whether he is working or playing. To himself, he always appears to be doing both.” -Francois Auguste Rene Chateaubriand