Book review: ideas of the moment

The owner of outdoor apparel manufacturer Patagonia Inc. pens unconventional business wisdom.

Yvon Chouinard, the son of a French-Canadian journeyman, humbly describes himself as a “dirtbag”–a bohemian outdoorsman shunning traditional business practices and fearful of becoming one of “those pasty-faced corpses in suits.” In his recently released biography/responsible-business guide, Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman (Penguin; $38), the founder and owner of Patagonia Inc., a privately held outdoor apparel manufacturer, describes how he parlayed his passion for the outdoors into business success. (The title refers to his company's flextime policy whereby, when the surf is up or the snow is down, employees are allowed to head out to play so long as work is not compromised.) While becoming an acclaimed adventurer and famed rock climber, he also turned a seasonal car-trunk-based climbing-equipment shop into a well-recognized brand, lauded employer and going concern.

Skeptical about the fate of the environment, Chouinard implicates business, government, the American dream and American conservatism. To him, the conventional wisdom and its emphasis on profit over sustainability, short-term over long-term, desire over need, and output over full costs has failed. He presents Patagonia as an “experiment.” Its mission to “make the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, and use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis” is honourable, but nowhere does Chouinard present a framework for assessing necessity. Is it necessary for Patagonia to print and ship catalogues to sell products? Is this justified as long as the catalogues are printed on recycled paper and promote environmentalism? These are relevant questions, considering that Chouinard advocates changing the motivation behind consumption from desire to need–an intimidating prospect for any industry.

Most of the book is spent outlining Patagonia's philosophies in the areas of design, production, distribution, image, human resources, finance, management and the environment. Chouinard draws support from an interesting range of disciplines–from economics and ecology to religion and philosophy. His sources are also diverse: he appears competent in quoting John F. Kennedy, John Maynard Keynes, Paul Hawken and Robert Costanza. He also integrates the best “ideas of the moment,” prevailing ideas readily familiar to a business audience.

Chouinard claims his philosophies can be applied to any other kind of business, but it is difficult to picture the application to more destructive industries like extraction. At the very least he is advocating scrupulous efficiency and that penance is owed for environmental harm. To that end, Patagonia promotes activism and religiously self-imposes an annual tax of 1% of sales (not profits) to donate to environmental causes, a practice Chouinard grew into an international certification program. This is likable, but Chouinard offers little insight into how to survive while the rest of your short-sighted peers are funnelling that 1% into marketing.

Chouinard's management style and business insights aren't new, nor is the way he delivers many of them metaphorically. What distinguishes this book is Chouinard's assessment of responsibility. While the book often feels like a huge sales pitch–not only for Patagonia and its values but also its products–it contains a refreshing admission about his company's impact. Perhaps the most startling revelation comes in the last lines: “Patagonia will never be completely socially responsible. It will never make a totally sustainable nondamaging product. But it is committed to trying.” This honesty is the book's most attractive quality. The book is also a great adventure, likely to make a few pasty-faced office-dwellers blush with envy–maybe even green with jealousy.