Let My People Go Surfing by Yvon Chouinard

When’s the last time you enjoyed nature and walked barefoot through grass, swam in the ocean, or went camping?

Growing up, I was fortunate to have a dad who immersed me in nature.  He took me for week long trips into the Yosemite back country to summit peaks, catch fish, and grill them up. Most of all, these trips reminded me that there was a world out there beyond the city.

Once I went off to college and started becoming an adult, my ties to nature began to diminish.  This has been especially true when I started a company, where my perspective and focus was tunneled into creating value for clients and growing revenues.

After being immersed in the business ecosystem of Silicon Valley, I was astonished at how little the environment was thought about.  People are excited to talk about win-win solutions between business, but what about win-win between business and Earth?

Thankfully I stumbled upon Let My People Go Surfing, which clarified what I was feeling and helped me realize that if we don’t start adding the environment to our capitalistic mindsets, we’re going to be in a world of hurt later.

What’s the big idea?

Capitalism fails to consider the environment enough, when it should be one of the most important elements to consider.  It should be seen as chairman to the board of your organization.

Business can produce food, cure disease, control population, employ people, and generally enrich our lives.  And it can do these good things and make a profit without losing its soul.

It’s quite insane to me that leaders in business feel that their business is the center of the universe.  To me, that thinking is as backwards as thinking the sun revolves around the Earth.

The health of our home planet is the bottom line, and it’s a responsibility we all must share.

But in reality, it’s the system’s fault.  Nature has only been thought of as ‘resources’ in terms of finite goods that can be consumed, morphed, and created into something of value.  Who cares when they run out; just find another thing to take it’s place.

We believe the accepted model of capitalism that necessitates endless growth and deserves the blame for the destruction of natures must be displaced.

Our world is composed of many systems stacked upon each other.  It only makes sense that we spend more time understanding these systems and their interaction with our capitalistic system.  If we can do this, we have a win-win. Right now it’s more of a zero-sum game in favor of capitalism…until Earth’s buffers to keep things optimal for us run dry and we go away.  Remember, the world will be here after we’re gone, just in a different state.

“There’s no business to be done on a dead planet.” – David Brower

How does the author know?

Yvon Chouinard is the owner of Patagonia, but would probably rather have you know him as an environmentalist who reluctantly went into business.  Through business he’s shown his ability to protect nature and inspire others businesses to follow suit.

He’s not your average businessman.   It’s truly refreshing to hear the backstory of how he went from a rock climber ‘bum’, to the owner of one of the most respected clothing/environmentally-focused companies.

Why should you care?

Do you believe:

The American dream is to own your own business, grow it as quickly as you can until you can cash out, and retire to the golf courses of Leisure World.  The business itself is really the product, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re selling shampoo or land mines. Long-term capital investments in employee training, on-site child care, pollution controls, and pleasant working facilities all are negatives on the short-term ledger.  

When the company becomes the fat calf, it’s sold for a profit, and its resources and holdings are often ravaged and broken apart, leading to the disruption of family ties and the long-term health of local economies.  The notion of business as disposable entities carries over to all other elements of society.

When you get away from the idea that a company is a product to be sold to the highest bidder in the shortest amount of time, all future decisions in the company are affected.  The owners and the officers see that since the company will outlive them, they have responsibilities beyond the bottom line.

There needs to be a shift in our thinking of what business success is.  Depending on the industry, usually it’s reaching IPO or acquisition in the shortest amount of time for the highest price to make the investors, founders, and employees (hopefully) a great return on their investment, and hopefully something of real value out into the world.

But why should we value this brand of short term thinking?  Are bad decisions like cutting corners or unreasonable strain on the environment worth it to society as a whole?

I don’t believe in blaming the individual actors fully when the system allows for it.  People will always try to do what’s best for them in the system their in. But, we need to start glorifying those who see the bigger picture of environmental capitalism, who think long term about the decisions of their business and how they want to leave the world for future generations.

“There is a word for it, and the word is clean.”

Environmental capitalism will probably turn off  people who haven’t been exposed to nature, but what if we called it Clean Capitalism instead?  Clean Capitalism is where we factor in the Earth as a shareholder of our company and we have to make sure we have a representative who casts their vote on behalf of the Earth.

What should you do?

It really depends on where you are in life.

  • Everyone today: Go walk barefoot in grass or smell a flower.
  • Everyone this month: Plan a camping trip in nature and go for a long hike with no electronic devices.  Really put yourself in a situation that breaks your everyday normal and see how there is more to life than your current routine.
  • Business owners: Ask constantly, “what will this decision lead to generations from now?”
    • If you’re an established business, join the 1% for the planet movement or look into B-Corp status.
    • As for their products, they believe in letting the market decide if they should exist or not.  A company should be responsible not only for causing the least amount of harm to society and the environment in making its product but also for the product itself.
  • Government official: “how can I improve the system to inspire people to put the the health of the environment at the same level as the quest for high profit margins?”
    • Maybe even go so far as to:
    • Put levy taxes on all nonrenewable resources, and correspondingly reduce the taxes on income, it would be the biggest step we could make toward becoming a sustainable society.

Nuggets to chew on:

  • As entrepreneurs, it’s ok to strive for building a small, yet impactful company that are “clean,” valuable to the world, and still makes a sizable profit.
  • Buy less; buy better.  Just because it’s cheap or in fashion, means you need to buy it.
  • Look to the Iroquois and their seven-generation planning.  As part of their decision process, the Iroquois had a person who represented the seventh generation in the future.  
  • Make all your decisions as though you would be in business for a hundred years.
  • Work needs to be enjoyable on a daily basis.  Blur the line between work, play, and family.
  • If you focus on the process of climbing, you’ll end up on the summit.  Same applies to personal goal setting and in business.
    • Many people don’t understand that how you climb a mountain is more important than reaching the top.

Lastly: remember that “you must be the change you wish to see in the world.” – Mahatma Gandhi

If you’re still interested in Let My People Go Surfing, here are my raw notes:

  • Business can produce food, cure disease, control population, employ people, and generally enrich our lives.  And it can do these good things and make a profit without losing its soul.
  • We believe the accepted model of capitalism that necessitates endless growth and deserves the blame for the destruction of natures must be displaced.
  • Heros: Muir, Thoreau, and Emerson.
  • 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.
  • “There is a word for it, and the word is clean.  Climbing with only nuts and runners for protection is clean climbing. Clean because the rock is left unaltered by the passing climber.  Clean because nothing is hammered into the rock and then hammered back out, leaving the rock scarred and the next climber’s experience less natural. Clean is climbing the rock without changing it; a step closer to organic climbing for the natural man.” -Doug Robinson.
  • “I had no business experience so I started asking people for free advice.  I just called up presidents of banks and said, ‘I’ve been given these companies to run and I have no idea what I’m doing.  I think someone should help me.’ “And they did. If you just ask people for help—if you just admit that you don’t know something—they will fall all over themselves trying to help.  So, from there I began building the company.” -Kristine McDivitt
  • The best way to communicate a craft was to try to teach it.  With each class I learned to describe the techniques with her words. -Ray Conklin
  • If I had to be a businessman, I was going to do it on my own terms.
  • Work had to be enjoyable on a daily basis.  We needed to blur that distinction between work and play and family.
  • The truth lies right down the middle.
  • Doug also had a visceral dislike for authority and always relished breaking the rules.
  • I’ve always through of myself as an 80 percent.  I like to throw myself passionately into a sport or activity until I reach about 80 percent proficiency level.
  • Make significant investments in our own research and design departments.
  • You can’t wait until you have all the answers before you act.  It’s often a greater risk to phase in products because you lose the advantage of being first with a new idea.
  • Another problem came to haunt me more: the deterioration of the natural world.
  • A company needs someone to go out and get the temperature of the world, so for years I would come home excited about ideas for products, new markets, or new materials.
  • Mark taught us two important lessons: A grassroots effort could make a difference and degraded habitats could, with effort, be restored.
  • In the course of roaming around those wild lands, we asked ourselves why we were in business and what kind of business we wanted Patagonia to be.
  • Look up: Jerry Mander.
  • Reread “Our Values.” pg. 73
  • Doing risk sports had taught me another important lesson: Never exceed our limits.  You push the envelope, and you live for those moments when you’re right on the edge, but you don’t go over.
  • If you focus on the process of climbing, you’ll end up on the summit.  As it turns out, the perfect place I’ve found to apply this Zen philosophy is in the business world.
  • Look to the Iroquois and their seven-generation planning.  As part of their decision process, the Iroquois had a person who represented the seventh generation in the future.
    • Make all your decisions as though you would be in business for a hundred years.
  • I’ve heard that smart investors and bankers don’t trust a growing company until it has proved itself by how it survives its first big crisis.
  • Mission statement: “Make the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, and use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental cause.”
    • “Make the best” is a difficult goal.  It doesn’t mean “among the best” or the “best at a particular price point.” It means “make the best,” period.
  • The first precept of industrial design is that the function of an object should determine its design and materials.
    • Function must dictate form.
  • Is this purchase necessary?
  • The more you know, the less you need.
  • Thoreau’s advice: “I say beware of all enterprises that require new clothes…”
  • The best products are multi-functional, however you market them.
  • Buy less; buy better.
  • The overall durability of a product is only as good as its weakest element, the ultimate goal should be a product whose parts wear out at roughly the same time and only after a long life.
  • Good design is as little design as possible.
  • “Simplify, simplify” -H.D. Thoreau.  “One ‘simplify’ would have sufficed.” -RW. Emerson in response.
  • “There are two types of creativity: the creativity of making zero to one, and the creativity of making one to 1,000.” -Kazuhiko Nishi, the “Steve Jobs of Japan”
  • I’d much rather design and sell products so good and unique that they have no competition.
  • Some companies are based on having proprietary design and patents, but far more successful ones are based on innovation.
  • When becoming a global company, adapt your designs toward local preferences, toward their functional need and sizing and color.  Produce more locally and less centrally.
  • Environmental concerns trump all others.
  • A study by Dr. Thomas M. Power at the University of Montana states that only 10 to 15 percent of the only Americans spend on goods and services is necessary for survival.
    • People spend the other 85-90% of their money for upgrades in quality.
  • All customers are not equal in our eyes.  There are indeed some we favor more than others.  These are our core customers, those for whom we actually design our clothes.
  • Market trends are less important than strong intuition.
  • Coming in second, even with a superior product at a better price, is often no substitute for just plain being first.
  • Discovering instead of inventing.  There’s simply no time for inventing.
  • “cradle to cradle” Have responsibility for what you make, from birth to death and then beyond death, back to rebirth.
  • Only 10 percent of the costs are incurred during the design phase, but 90 percent of the cost are irrevocably committed.
  • If the standards aren’t high already, we don’t delude ourselves into thinking they’ll be raised for us.
  • Put quality first, period.
  • Zen approach to archery or anything else, you identify the goal and then forget about it and concentrate on the process.
  • Be a full partner.  You have to make sure that your suppliers and contractors have the necessary knowledge and tools to get the job done to your design standards.  Getting to that point is not a problem if you and your working partners are mutually committed to the same standards.
  • Because the world is changing, we can never assume that the way we have done things in the past is adequate for the future.
  • Have an attitude of embracing change rather than resisting it.
  • Think about diversifying your distribution.
  • First principle of mail order argues that “selling” ourselves and our philosophy is equally important to selling product.
  • The customer should have to make only one phone call.
  • “on time” means when the customer wants it.
  • 55% product content, 45% devoted to messaging – essays, stories, and image photos.
  • There is no secret to running a great retail store.  It just requires hard work and great customer service.
  • Every individual spends an entire lifetime creating and evolving a personal image that others perceive.
  • Particular philosophy of life:
    • A deep appreciation for the environment and a strong motivation to help solve the environmental crisis; a passionate love for the natural world; a healthy skepticism toward authority; a love for difficult, human-powered sports that require practice and mastery; a disdain for motorized sports like snowmobiling or jet skiing; a bias for whacko, often self-deprecating humor; a respect for real adventure (defined best as a journey from which you may not come back alive—and certainly not as the same person); a taste for real adventure; and a belief that less is more (in design and consumption).
  • Without a healthy environment there are no shareholders, no employees, no customers and no business.
  • Our mission statement says nothing about making a profit.  In fact Malinda and I consider our bottom line to be the amount of good that the business has accomplished over the year.  However, a company needs to be profitable in order to stay in business and to accomplish all its other goals, and we do consider profit to be a vote of confidence, that our customers approve of what we are doing.
  • “Using business to implement and inspire solutions to the environmental crisis.”  Put the responsibility of leadership directly on us.
  • Profit happens “when you do everything else right.”
  • Quality, not price, has the highest correlation with business success.
  • We don’t want to be a big company.  We want to be the best company, and it’s easier to try to be the best small company than the best big company.  We have to practice self-control. Growth in one part of the company may have to be sacrificed to allow growth in another.
  • Focus on our bottom line, doing good.
  • The best managers are never at their desks yet can be easily found and approached by everyone reporting to them.
  • Managers have short-term vision, implement strategic plans, and keep things running as they always have.
  • Leaders take risks, have long-term vision, create the strategic plans, and instigate change.
  • The best leadership is by example.
  • The most successful non-celebrity CEOs love working with their hands.
  • When a problem comes up, the effective CEO does not immediately hire a consultant.  Outsiders don’t know your business the way you do, and anyway, I’ve found that most consultants come from failed businesses.
  • The owners and managers who want to be around for the next 100 years better love change.
  • The lesson to be learned about evolution (change) is that it doesn’t happen without stress, and it can happen quickly.
  • Many people don’t understand that how you climb a mountain is more important than reaching to the top.
  • Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or a politician – Miklo S. Dora.
  • The twenty-first century must become the Century of the Environment.
  • I’ve found the cure for depression is action, and action is the basis for the environmental philosophy at Patagonia.
  • The One Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka.
  • We begin with the assumption that our business relies on natural resources to stay alive, and we are therefore a part of a system and obligated to maintain it.
  • The health of our home planet is the bottom line, and it’s a responsibility we all must share.
  • Most environmental damage being done by business is the result of large corporations that aren’t operating under the philosophy of sustainability, for either themselves or the environment.
  • “We’ve been cooking the books for a long time by leaving out the worth of nature.” Robert Constanza.
  • Philosophy:
    • Lead an examined life.
    • Clean up our own act.
    • Do our penance.
    • Support civil democracy.
    • Influence other companies.
  • Uncurious people do not lead examined lives; they cannot see causes that lie deeper than the surface.
  • Facts trump faith.
  • To recognize that we cannot afford to go about blindly doing unnecessary damage simply because we lack curiosity.
  • Every time we’ve elected to do the right thing, even when it costs twice as much to do it that way, it’s turned out to be more profitable.
  • The important point is that each time we tried to do the right thing for the environment regardless of the cost to us, we ended up saving money.
  • As long as a demand exists for forest products, the forest will be cut, and if we continue to demand petroleum and whale meat, we will eventually drill for oil in our wildlife refuges and whales will continue to be harvested.
  • When a government is breaking or refusing to enforce its own laws, then I believe civil disobedience is the rightful course of action.
  • You are what you do, not what you say you are.
  • As for their products, they believe in letting the market decide if they should exist or not.  A company should be responsible not only for causing the least amount of harm to society and the environment in making its product but also for the product itself.
  • Reach out to Derrick Jensen.
  • Put levy taxes on all nonrenewable resources, and correspondingly reduce the taxes on income, it would be the biggest step we could make toward becoming a sustainable society.
  • The idea is to give generously and not to find loopholes to avoid giving.
  • Nature loves diversity.  It hates monoculture and centralization.
  • David Brower: “There’s no business to be done on a dead planet.”
  • Mahatma Gandhi, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”
  • One of the biggest mandates I have for managers at the company is to instigate change.  It’s the only way we’re going to survive in the long run.
  • The wise leaders know if they don’t move while they are strong, they won’t have the fortitude to move when the  next crisis hits.
  • Robinson Jeffers wrote, “In pleasant peace and security how suddenly the soul in a man begins to die.”
  • I have a different definition of evil from most people. Evil doesn’t have to be an overt act; it can be merely the absence of good.  If you have the ability, the resources, and the opportunity to do good and you do nothing, that can be evil.
  • The American dream is to own your own business, grow it as quickly as you can until you can cash out, and retire to the golf courses of Leisure World.  The business itself is really the product, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re selling shampoo or land mines. Long-term capital investments in employee training, on-site child care, pollution controls, and pleasant working facilities all are negatives on the short-term ledger.  When the company becomes the fatted calf, it’s sold for a profit, and its resources and holdings are often ravaged and broken apart, leading to the disruption of family ties and the long-term health of local economies. The notion of business as disposable entities carries over to all other elements of society.
    • When you get away from the idea that a company is a product to be sold to the highest bidder in the shortest amount of time, all future decisions in the company are affected.  The owners and the officers see that since the company will outlive them, they have responsibilities beyond the bottom line.