Outdoor Market

A useful corollary to Siskel’s rule as applied to autobiographies of business titans might be: “After reading this book, would I want to have lunch with the author?”

The highest compliment I can thus pay Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman is that I’d love to break bread with Yvon Chouinard. A master outdoorsman and eco-activist extraordinaire, Chouinard is also the founder of Patagonia, a company that grosses $230 million per year selling some of the coolest adventure gear on Earth. Patagonia is distinguished not only by the quality of merchandise, but also by its dedication to ethically and environmentally sound corporate policies; it is a Sierra Club member’s dream of a multimillion dollar company.

Yet, Chouinard’s book has its problems. It shows no signs of having been ghostwritten, which in this case is not a compliment; Chouinard is obviously not familiar with Mr. T: The Man With the Gold, another memoir in which the subject failed to hand off the literary duties to a more competent wordsmith.

But the bigger problem with the book lies with the lessons he proposes to present from his life and his company’s success. Chouinard tends to spout holier-than-thou rhetoric in lieu of concrete ideas. Let My People Go Surfing is billed as a manifesto rather than a memoir, and for good reason–Chouinard spends much of the book exhorting readers to learn from Patagonia’s philosophy of corporate responsibility. In doing so, he makes Patagonia seem a little like Sweden: earnest and effective, admirable, even enviable, but a bit too smug about its superiority and oblivious to the fact its system can’t be applied everywhere.

There is no doubt that Chouinard has led a life worth envying, starting with an adolescence spent scaling the Tetons and camping in Baja California. To make ends meet, he worked for a detective agency that counted Howard Hughes among its clients; the young Chouinard was charged with keeping tabs on Hughes’s mistresses and ensuring that the tycoon’s yacht was germ-free.

In 1957, using tools salvaged from a junkyard, Chouinard taught himself blacksmithing in order to forge his own mountaineering equipment, such as pitons (the spikes driven into rocks) and carabiners (which connect ropes to pitons). Suffering through a failed marriage and an Army stint in Korea, he eventually turned his metallurgical hobby into a business, selling sturdy gear to fellow climbers.

But he quickly moved on from peddling carabiners to clothing, as anyone who’s strolled across a New England university campus can attest. Chouinard started his clothing line with English corduroys and rugby shirts, two garments durable enough to withstand the rigors of rock climbing. He later branched out into quick-drying polyester in the mid-1970s, and then into fleecy Synchilla, which would become the unofficial fabric of cold-weather fraternity houses.

From the beginning, Chouinard fancied himself an enlightened boss. He refers to his management style as MBA–management by absence–and prefers to field test new products in the Andes rather than deal with day-to-day operations. Patagonia also offered its employees such perks as child care and flex time from the very beginning–the book’s title refers to the tendency of Patagonia employees to spend their flex time catching waves near the company’s Ventura, Calif., headquarters.

Despite his easygoing credo, Chouinard is no slacker. He keeps a watchful eye on Patagonia’s dealings with every supplier and contractor, and he exhibits a remarkable fascination with fabric technology; the man is in full command of all trivia related to the melting point of polypropylene. He appears to have given far less thought, however, as to why his little blacksmithery grew so rapidly into a booming corporation. Chouinard simply credits the high quality of Patagonia garments, with an occasional hat tip to more mundane business choices–for example, offering jackets in teal and cobalt rather than humdrum brown.

Though recreational climbing has certainly grown in popularity during Patagonia’s existence, climbers alone are not sufficient to explain the company’s sales. Whether intentionally or not, Chouinard ignores the obvious when he fails to acknowledge his debt to poseurs: Patagonia would still be a niche company were it not for the legions of preppies who responded to the brand’s macho imagery, honed in catalogues depicting muscled athletes dangling from outcroppings. It would be fascinating to learn what percentage of Men’s Lightweight R4 Vests ($135) are worn exclusively within a 500-yard radius of some variety of asphalt.

Whatever the true source of Patagonia’s popularity, the company’s explosive growth throughout the 1980s caused Chouinard more angst than joy. He worried that Patagonia would turn into a Nike-like leviathan, utterly divorced from its humble roots. And he despaired over the deterioration of the world’s environment, which he witnessed firsthand during his regular forays to the Himalayas, sub-Saharan Africa, and Polynesia. The first problem solved itself: Patagonia suffered a cash-flow crisis in the early 1990s, laid off 20 percent of its workforce, and settled into a more leisurely pace of growth. Protecting the environment, meanwhile, has become Chouinard’s personal obsession, and he spends much of the remainder of Let My People Go Surfing illustrating how Patagonia has become a decent corporate citizen.

Chouinard has obviously given careful thought to the conundrum of balancing responsibility with profitability, and there’s something touching about the way in which he agonizes over the details. At one point, he describes why Patagonia refuses to refer to its cotton garments as organic, even though the cotton is raised on organic farms. He explains that, because other parts of the clothes-making process may involve non-organic dyes, it would be technically inaccurate to refer to the entire finished garment as organic; instead, Patagonia opts for “organically grown.” Something tells me that the makers of the organic burritos in my freezer aren’t quite so assiduous about labeling.

There is nothing particularly revolutionary about Chouinard’s philosophy of sustainable business; he believes in recycling, eliminating the use of pesticides and other toxins, and tithing to worthy environmental causes. Yet the steps that Patagonia has taken to make good on these promises are admirably innovative. Most famously, the company figured out how to recycle plastic soda bottles into fleece jackets; 25 empty two-liter Coca-Cola bottles can be pressed into one new Women’s Chute to Thrill Jacket ($399). Chouinard also co-founded 1 Percent for the Planet, an alliance of corporations that pledge 1 percent of their annual sales to environmental groups. Chouinard admits that Patagonia isn’t perfect and seems genuinely saddened by the company’s shortcomings. At one point, he notes that Patagonia has removed toxic PVCs from all of the company’s products, “the sole exception being the foam on the Lotus Design life jackets and some print on t-shirts.” Don’t go organizing a picket line just yet, though–they’re working on the problem.

“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,” Chouinard writes. This conclusion runs contrary to conventional wisdom of the Wal-Mart era, which holds that price is all that consumers really care about. It’s heartening to read about a company that has stuck to its principles and flourished.

But is the Patagonia model transferable to other companies or other industries? Chouinard is fortunate, of course, that environmentalism dovetails so nicely with his company’s raison d’tre. It’s a lot easier to weave eco-consciousness into the corporate mission statement when you’re selling Stretch SST Jackets ($325) instead of spark plugs. The more wilderness that remains off limits to development, the more venues there are for the use of Patagonia products. If only the same were true for Big Oil, the world would be a much happier place.

Patagonia is also fortunate to be involved in an industry that is, for lack of a better word, fun. Chouinard writes that he prefers to recruit experienced climbers rather than MBAs, in part because members of the former group are more likely to foster deep convictions about environmentalism. But how can this philosophy be adapted by a company that manufactures, say, Styrofoam? It must be tough to find potential employees who are not only really, really into Styrofoam, but are also willing to spend their spare time lobbying Congress to preserve wetlands.

Chouinard never tackles these issues, just as he dances around the fact that a very finite number of customers can pay $32 for a Capilene Silkweight t-shirt. He does offer up some vague platitudes about convincing other companies that “green business is good business,” and he rightfully points out that a scorched planet benefits no one. But he is short on specific prescriptions for how to make corporate responsibility profitable not only for high-end clothing merchants, but for everyone.

There are a few moments of clarity, as when Chouinard elucidates the long-term financial benefits of local production–a viewpoint that makes particular sense as gas prices climb toward $4 per gallon, thereby greatly increasing shipping costs. But such nuggets are too often lost amidst Chouinard’s digressions on Zen Buddhism, the philosophy of architecture, and the swallows that live under his roof.

There is no question that Patagonia sounds like a delightful place to work, and that Chouinard deserves plaudits for creating a company where doing good and making money are not mutually exclusive endeavors. But if he expects other businesses to follow his example, he’ll need to come up with a more convincing coaxing strategy. Here’s an idea: free Synchilla Off-the-Grid Jackets ($130) to every company that eliminates PVCs from its production cycle.

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