Patagonia-founder Yvon Chouinard’s autobiography "Let my people go surfing" is approaching its twentieth birthday, but still feels revolutionary: that’s a worrying sign.
This month outdoor apparel brand Patagonia launched a campaign to end bottom trawling. The fishing practice involves scraping a weighted net along the ocean floor, devastating ecosystems by stirring up plants, animals and the seabed itself. The company is trying to generate more awareness as to its damaging effects, and gather support to end it altogether. Its initiative involved a schedule of events around the world, a series of documentary-style films and a petition for an immediate ban on the practice.
Whether the plan is successful remains to be seen, but this sort of fight isn’t unusual for Patagonia. Throughout its fifty-year history, the company has aligned itself with grassroots activism and pioneered an unconventional, anti-growth approach to capitalism. In 1985 it imposed an “Earth Tax” on itself, vowing to put 1% of sales each year to preserving the natural environment, a measure that has seen 89 million USD put toward such initiatives.
In 2011 it ran an ad in the New York Times on Black Friday, imploring customers to make do and mend, rather than buy new. Since then, “Don’t Buy This Jacket” has become a marketing course case study.
The biggest headline came last year, when Patagonia’s founder, the mountain-climbing, blacksmith, “dirtbag” billionaire Yvon Chouinard signed the company over to a trust and non-profit organisation, which would automatically put earnings toward planet-preserving initiatives. “As of now, Earth is our only shareholder,” the company announced. “ALL profits, in perpetuity, will go to our mission to save our home planet.”
Fashion and apparel is the second most polluting industry in the world, only the oil and gas sector does more damage. Patagonia’s story is an anomaly. How can a company that produces sales of over 1 billion USD each year, by manufacturing and selling millions of items, tout its sustainability and environmental virtues? The answer is – it doesn’t. At COP26, in 2021, the company announced that it no longer wished to call itself a “sustainable brand”, conceding that despite its devotion to environmental improvement, it still was part of the problem.
That said, Patagonia has created a roadmap (or rather, a belay) for its peers in the apparel industry. And much of its pioneering spirit it owes to Chouinard’s influence. While Patagonia reaches its half century, its founder’s autobiography "Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman" is approaching its twentieth birthday.
First meant as a philosophical manual for employees, the book has become a modern classic. A re-examination shows that its lessons on how to run a company with purpose remains relevant for organisations in 2023. The backstory of Chouinard himself is a romantic dive into the life of a misanthrope youth who found connection in the wilds of California. Then the documentary of his experience as a blacksmith, hand forging climbing equipment to sell to fellow enthusiasts, offers an insight into the dual philosophies that run through the book: an obsession with design, and a horror at humanity’s treatment of the natural world.
Chouinard has adopted an unorthodox, maverick approach to running Patagonia. As a blacksmith, he was preoccupied with improving his mountaineering equipment by a process of simplification and subtraction rather than striving for complexity. As Patagonia flourished out of Chouinard’s piton business, the company adopted this approach not just to the clothes it manufactured, but to all aspects of its operations - from product design to marketing.
In the book he quotes Antoine de Saint Exupéry, a French aviator as a major inspiration: “In anything at all, perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away, when a body has been stripped down to its nakedness.”
The management style described by Chouinard also contains lessons for entrepreneurs today. As the title suggests, Patagonia pioneered a hands-off approach to management, where employees were encouraged to maximise time spent enjoying the outdoors, the pursuit of overwork and struggling to inch up the bottom line seems less important than the freedom of taking the afternoon off if the surf happened to be good.
Chouinard himself maintains that his best ideas for strategy and product design always happened when he was scaling a rock face, careering down a mountain on skis or fly fishing. Seldom does he have such flashes of inspiration sat behind a desk.
What is most staggering about the book is its outline of Patagonia’s environmental principles, the last and longest chapter on the company’s philosophies. Although it was published in 2005 the chapter remains a playbook on how to use a brand’s fandom, storytelling capabilities - and even touch points like retail and publishing - to create change.
It is empowering to hear Chouinard’s perspective on leveraging his company’s influence to preserve ecosystems or bring environmental debates to the fore. In the same way, it is saddening that the approach still feels novel. In an age of greenwash and overstated environmental pledges, Let My People go Surfing is ground-breaking. But in 2023, it shouldn’t be.