Why You Should Read: Let My People Go Surfing by Yvon Chouinard
Updated: Dec 21, 2020
Sometimes reading about sustainable/ethical/responsible business practice can be dry. Like, really dry.
Once in a while, though, I’ll stumble on a book or an article that isn’t just educational but is entertaining and accessible as well. That’s how I feel about Let My People Go Surfing by Yvon Chouinard. Yvon is the founder of Patagonia – a fashion brand that has essentially become synonymous with responsible business practice and infamous anti-marketing marketing tactics.
The book was originally published in 2005 but was republished in 2016 with “10 more years” of insight into Yvon’s self-titled “unusual business” practices. The first portion of the book ropes you in by giving you a brief history of Yvon’s remarkable life – it’ll have you feeling some serious second-hand nostalgia for Californian surf culture in the 50s.
Beyond this, though, you’re taken on the journey of how a small, quality-focused manufacturer of mountain climbing supplies evolved into the sustainable fashion powerhouse brand that we know today.
Beyond being just plain fascinating, there are a two main reasons why I seriously think everyone interested in sustainable fashion should read this book. Even if you’re not an avid rock-climber like Chouinard:
Chouinard’s Anti-Growth Philosophy:
Traditional success in business, especially in consumer industries, is measured by growth. That’s inherently a sustainability problem. Chouinard turns this on its head and essentially asks, ‘why does a business need to force growth in order to be perceived as successful’?
The truth is a business is still ‘successful’ even if this year’s profits aren’t higher than last year. The focus throughout business practice on growth tends to stem partially from keeping shareholders happy and growing a firm’s stock price – which is part of the reason why Chouinard vows that Patagonia will never be a publicly traded company.
“You have to know your strengths and limitations and live within your means. The same is true for a business. The sooner a company tries to be what it is not, the sooner it tries to have it all, the sooner it will die.”
For Patagonia, this means not ‘forcing’ growth by stepping out of their traditional markets, but focusing instead on how to perfect outdoor gear.
Chouinard’s philosophy is that in business, growth will occur naturally if your product is the best that it can be from a quality standpoint. Quality, not growth, should be the end goal of the business. You should not encourage consumers to purchase something new every season. Instead, make the best possible product that you can and then give them a lifetime warranty on it, because you’re so confident in what you’ve made. That’s how you drive loyalty, not with massive Black Friday sales and a constant push of new product.
(Left) Based on Patagonia’s warrantees, this guy could still get these trousers repaired or repurposed today.
Responsibility for the Total:
In addition to Chouinard’s philosophy on growth, he’s also always put the Earth, its people, and its health at the forefront of how Patagonia does business. He calls this being “responsible for the total”.
“What we take, how and what we make, what we waste, is in fact a question of ethics. We have unlimited responsibility for the total.”
This encompasses all of Patagonia’s environmental impacts straight from the cotton seed. Not because they’re trying to impress us, but because Chouinard believes it is a business’s responsibility to do so.
Patagonia’s philosophy also talks about ‘responsibility’ as inclusive of employee welfare at all levels of the business. The fashion industry is traditionally seen as cutthroat, competitive, and generally unkind to workers at all levels. That’s what makes Chouinard’s views so refreshing to read: Success comes from happy employees.
From ensuring employee welfare in production to providing free onsite childcare to employees at their office in Vernon, California… wow. This is a huge deal, and it’s so refreshing to read the founder of such a successful fashion firm talking about it.
The gender pay gap tends to really kick in when women have children. Women are still fighting for equal rights in the workplace (equal pay, childcare benefits, paternity leave of equal value) and there is still no place on Earth where we’re guaranteed any of these things. Patagonia has included all of this since the 70s.
Chouinard believes that the interconnectivity of empowered employees, respecting the planet, and focusing on quality have all led to Patagonia’s massive organic growth and domination of the outdoor apparel market. And… I agree with him! It’s a bummer reality that caring about people and the planet is considered a non-traditional, innovative approach, but at least there are people out there in the industry who have realized that.
Anyways. READ THIS BOOK! If you care about sustainability in fashion and in business, you'll love it.