Let My People Go Surfing, 10 More Years of Business Unusual
Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard's seminal book gets a refresh, continues to inspire
*all images courtesy Patagonia
I’ve been called an idealist before. It’s ok. I’m cool with it. So when an idealist is also a gear junkie, what does he buy? Patagonia. As my old gear gets worn out, it inevitably gets replaced with its Patagucci equivalent. This process has been going on for the better part of ten years and is in large part due to the durability of the gear and my trust in the company’s business practices.
For those familiar with the brand, you may know about Patagonia’s traceable down campaign to end the “live plucking” of goose down feather, or “Dam Nation”, the Patagonia produced documentary about the movement to remove useless dams across North America, or the brand’s celebrated line of reclaimed clothing. Whatever you know about Patagonia, you probably understand the company does things differently. But how does this work? How is Patagonia still in business if it’s more focused on supporting environmental advocacy, building indestructible gear and repairing anything that breaks than pushing product? It seems contrary to profit-focused business as usual. That’s because Patagonia is different. It’s business unusual.
Back in 2006, Yvon Chouinard—legendary climber, businessman, environmentalist and founder of Patagonia—released Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman. In his long-awaited memoir, Yvon shared the story of his original foray into the world of business and the secrets to his successful transition from the walls of Yosemite to the head of one of the most environmentally and socially responsible companies in the world. The book was an instant success.
Armed with Yvon’s responsible business blueprint, a whole generation of social entrepreneurs, CSR professionals and environmentally conscious businesses struck out into the great less-known of corporate responsibility to try and make the world a better place within the confines of a capitalist economy. Some have succeeded, many have failed, but Yvon’s contagious idealism has persisted.
I first picked up a copy of Yvon’s 2006 release in 2008 as a sophomore in college. The book’s message resonated with me and set me on a path towards a bachelor degree in environmental studies, then on to the front lines of green business as the brand manager for Soul Poles, an environmentally conscious and socially responsible bamboo ski pole company based in Park City, UT. Yvon’s story of dirtbag to boardroom and his commitment to business ethics motivated and inspired me to make my small spec on the timeline a positive one.
So when I heard Yvon was releasing a revised version of Let My People Go Surfing, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on his latest musings. Ten years since its 2006 release, our world has experienced the largest economic recession since the Great Depression, seen a staggering increase in acute environmental issues and uncovered thousands of cases of inhumane working conditions. With all that has happened, it seems natural that Patagonia’s moral leader would have something to say.
In a completely rewritten chapter on environmental philosophy, Yvon expresses deep concerns about the planet's health in the face of climate change and other threats to the natural world. In response to these new threats, he has added a new element to his philosophy for responsible business: Do Good.
In Yvon's view, in making business decisions that will lead to long-term success, Patagonia, and other responsible businesses, must account not only for the bottom line, but also the right thing to do. More than just simply attempting to cause less harm, Yvon writes about a new vision of agriculture as part of the solution, through regenerative practices designed to reduce carbon in the atmosphere and restore topsoil health.
Not one to blow hot air, Patagonia has begun investing in the “Do Good” philosophy with the recent launch of their plant-based Yulex wetsuits, Worn Wear clothing repair tour, Patagonia Provisions startup food business, and Patagonia Works, their social business venture fund.
The rewritten chapter, forward and other words of wisdom add 40 percent new material to the first edition. As Naomi Klein writes in the new foreword, “This is the story of an attempt to do more than change a single corporation – it is an attempt to challenge the culture of consumption that is at the heart of the global ecological crisis.”
And... It’s working. At nearly $1 billion in sales annually, Patagonia's growth has been attributed to the company’s faithfulness to its original mission: “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.”
This mission resonates throughout Patagonia products, manufacturing facilities, cattle fields, rubber orchards and the squealing day care playground at its Ventura, California corporate headquarters. It is the mission that inspires idealist entrepreneurs like me, resonates with cause-oriented millennials and will continue to normalize responsible business practices in today’s marketplace. This is business unusual, it’s working and our world needs more of it.