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Review: Let My People Go Surfing
Running a profitable company and engaging in sustained activism on behalf of people and the planet is no easy task. Neither is writing a compelling book lighting the way for others to follow. Yvon Chouinard has done both.
Blogging Our Great Divide
October 07, 2016
by Josh Hoxie
He did not set out to be a businessman or to solve the world’s problems. He wanted to climb rocks, surf waves, and just be outside. Yet Yvon Chouinard would become the founder and owner of one of the most successful outdoor clothing companies in the word. His book, Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman, tells his story, in both business and pioneering outdoor sports.
Why focus our attention at Inequality.org on a book about an outdoor clothing company? Well, apart from fancy jackets and trendy street clothes, Patagonia is known for a commitment to activism that prioritizes people and planet over profit.
The company gives away 1 percent of its annual sales to environmental activism — $70 million since 1970 — and encourages other businesses to follow suit. Patagonia is also innovative efforts to address inequality within the company and its industry.
Thirty years ago Patagonia founded the Great Pacific Child Development Center. At the time, only about a hundred in-house childcare centers around the country let working parents bring in kids as young as eight weeks old for comprehensive childcare services. Patagonia also offers 16 weeks paid maternity and 12 weeks paid paternity leave. Such strong commitment to families has won the company the praise of the Obama administration as a “Working Family Champion of Change.”
Legislation that would mandate paid maternity leave and subsidize universal early childcare and education have sputtered at the national level. Corporations typically lobby against such programs as inhibitors to free enterprise. Examples like Patagonia help counter that narrative.
Let My People Go Surfing offers more than promotion for Patagonia, as activist Naomi Klein notes in her foreword to the book’s just-released tenth anniversary edition. She describes Chouinard’s story as “an attempt to do more than change a single corporation.” Chouinard, Klein writes, is challenging “the culture of consumption that is the heart of the global ecological crisis.”
Reading the book, you get a sense of how Patagonia has been able to both make a difference and make money. Chouinard considers the latter essential: “No company will respect us, no matter how much money we give away or how much publicity we receive for being one of the ‘100 Best Companies’ if we are not profitable.”
Patagonia has been plenty profitable over it’s 46-year history, despite moves to put people and planet first. The company has initiated efforts to make the factories where their products are made be both safe and pay living wages.
And the company stands against free trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, despite the lower production costs the TPP might bring.
Patagonia, of course, has ample room for corporate improvement. Egregiously missing from the book and the company’s history: any move to cap the gap between its executive and employee compensation.
In the book, to his credit, Chouinard does discuss some of the inherent inconsistencies in his philosophy and his company’s business model. For starters, Patagonia makes clothes few can afford, a condition giving rise to the nickname “patagucci.” The company also operates in a market that prioritizes rampant consumption and “wear today, toss tomorrow” disposability.
Chouinard acknowledges the inherent negative environmental impact of any clothing business and argues for doing the best you can given the constraints. Products should be durable, functional for a variety of applications, and fixable. Buy one expensive jacket you wear for decades, he argues, rather than a dozen cheap ones you swap every couple years.
Flipping through the book’s glossy pictures and inspiring history, it’s hard not to appreciate what Chouinard has built. His deep passion for outdoor adventure, environmental sustainability, and Zen Buddhism come through in his witty prose and hard-earned wisdom. An admitted pessimist, Chouinard finds solace in activism funding countless projects to protect wild areas around the world and to improve the well-being of oppressed peoples.
Let My People Go Surfing amounts to a worthy read and an insightful guide to making a living and running a business in a culture loaded with backward priorities.
Josh Hoxie is director of the Project on Opportunity and Taxation at the Institute for Policy Studies and co-editor of Inequality.org.