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Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman

Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman. Yvon Chouinard. New York: Penguin Press, 2005. 261 pages. Hardcover. $26.95.

This review assignment made me nervous. I have to pass judgment on a book by climbing legend and environmental hero Yvon Chouinard—which is scary—and the damn book sounds like one of those business yawners—Who Moved my Seventh Habit, or whatever? About as appealing as an offwidth under a cornice, right?

Here’s the good news. My mental skies brightened as soon as I flipped the pages. Let My People Go Surfing turns out to be a new kind of business book; readers experience Patagonia’s company history as an unlikely adventure narrative from backyard shop to billion-dollar operation, with frequent tales of expedition and excitement from the peaks and the waves.

Let My People Go Surfing gives us an autobiography of Yvon Chouinard in the context of his company and his awakening environmental conscience. Indeed, this latter conscience is the story behind the story of Let My People Go Surfing. You see, environmentalism is barely a concern for the young Chouinard, but seeps into his ideas in the late sixties, and by the 70s is shaping product decisions, until the 90s when environmentalism is not only a factor in production choices, it’s the reason for the company’s existence. Let me confirm that last part: Chouinard is adamant that Patagonia exists to make money for environmental causes.

Chouinard’s book fascinates with examples of Patagonia’s bold and uncompromising environmental choices. For instance, in 1970 Chouinard Equipment was the country’s biggest climbing hardware supplier, and most of that hardware was pitons. A climb on the Nose that summer showed Chouinard the steady degradation of the granite cracks due to years of nailing. As a result, he and Tom Frost decided to get out of the piton business. What’s interesting here is the way environmental choices are not business hara-kiri; instead, they position the company to innovate and anticipate novel developments. In the case of the pitons, the innovation was stoppers and hexes, and soon they were selling these chocks faster than they could make them.

Let’s look at some other environmental cruxes in Patagonia’s history. (If this were a climbing biography, we’d be talking about the key ascents that define the legend.) What does it mean when a clothing company takes its primary fabric—cotton—and insists it be organically grown? It means that Patagonia’s cost for materials nearly doubles. But, in 1994 the company’s board voted to be organic by 1996, and the result was a trip all the way down the production chain—through cotton brokers, to suppliers, to the farmers themselves. Patagonia has stimulated demand for organic cotton, and influenced other apparel industry leaders to, finally, encourage organic cotton farming. Again, this principled decision has led Patagonia to a bigger market share. Chouinard concludes: “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.” So here’s the real Patagonia mission and the mission of this text—showing the corporate world that green business not only works, but is a profitable best choice for company practices.

Maybe there are deep and shameful secrets about Patagonia somewhere, but I don’t know them, and Let My People Go Surfing just made me feel glad to have a closet full of their stuff. The book describes Patagonia’s other progressive innovations that distinguish it from the suit and tie business world—like a tradition of on-site childcare, a corporate headquarters without executive suites, a recycling initiative for their own old products, and a commitment to the flextime policy that gives this book its title. So, in Chouinard’s story, Patagonia employees are not only allowed but urged to get out and surf or climb or demonstrate, and thereby replenish the cup of vigor that brought them first through the door.

Now I’m not a business guy, and there were a few dull spots in the text for me. Breaking the company practices into eight discrete philosophies—e.g. “Product Design Philosophy,” “Distribution Philosophy,” “Image Philosophy”—seems like the bland self-referentiality of Human Resources drones I’ve resented in the past (you know who you are). But, Let My People Go Surfing prusiks out of this particular crevasse with its radical message: Business can be the Green Revolution.

Patagonia is about action, and not about profit: “Our main reason for being in business is to work on changing the way governments and corporations ignore our environmental crisis.” This action extends from supporting activist groups and a self-imposed Earth Tax of 1% to the power of example. “If Patagonia can continue to be successful …, then we perhaps can convince other companies that green business is good business, and they can gain the confidence to take a few steps in the right direction.” So, Chouinard’s story is the story of a company finding its purpose in environmentally aware business practice. This is much more than preaching to the Birkenstock choir about recycling; it’s an address to the shiny-shoe-set positioned to reshape industry The striking thing is that Chouinard’s quest for responsibility and for relevance makes surprisingly good reading.

To sum up: behind the jokey title, there’s an edge to this book that slices the soft and comforting illusions from the American lifestyle. Here’s a capitalist telling us the perils of growth, a manufacturer talking about industrial toxins, a garment maker angry about the consequences of dyes and pesticides. Chouinard’s title is rooted in a revolutionary anger from the Old Testament, where the Lord tells Moses to tell Pharoah “Let my people go.” So, though we associate the line with Moses, it’s actually God who says “Let my people go,” and this isn’t the New Testament God of love and forgiveness here, this is the tooth for a tooth, blood on the ground, Lord God of the Hebrews we’re talking about—as Pharoah found out down the road. My point is that Let My People Go Surfing is its own Exodus. It’s a call to revolution from a Beatnik prophet for whom climbing was an alternative to the strait-laced expectation of the 1950s. Today, Patagonia is setting a counter-example to a Pharoah’s culture of suburban sprawl, faceless mutual funds, and insidious consumption that entangles us all.

I think this is a book for most anyone. If you happen to run a major corporation, have one of your interns retrieve it ASAP. If, like the rest of us, you’re starting to think about reducing your ecological footprint, Let My People Go Surfing is an entertaining inspiration.

Jeff McCarthy