“Anyone who thinks you can have infinite growth on a finite planet is either a madman or an economist” (Kenneth Boulding)
Let My People Go Surfing is Yvon Chouinard’s story of outdoor equipment brand Patagonia. It is, as Naomi Klein puts it in her Foreword, the story of “a sincere attempt to address the core tension between the market’s demand for endless growth and the planet’s need for a break”.
Chouinard’s agonies and wrestling over this core tension are apparent throughout. He sees both good and bad in business. On the one hand, he suggests that:
“business has to take the majority of the blame for being the enemy of nature… and for poisoning the earth with the effluent from its factories”.
On the other, he recognises that:
“business can produce food, cure disease, control population, employ people, and generally enrich our lives”.
It makes for a compelling and fascinating business tale. At one point, Chouinard seeks the advice of a leading management guru who advises him to sell the business and establish a foundation to support the environmental causes he is so passionate about. Chouinard doesn’t take the advice and instead seeks to radically reshape the business. He sets out to build a business which is not only successful in conventional terms but which also impacts on the wider business world.
“Patagonia exists to challenge conventional wisdom and present a new style of responsible business. We believe the accepted model of capitalism that necessitates endless growth and deserves the blame for the destruction of nature must be displaced”.
It may sound like idealism but this is a vision which drove the company to action. Seemingly, no stone was left unturned in their pursuit of environmental and social responsibility. Chouinard and his colleagues developed a whole series of philosophical and inspirational guides for each of their main departments and functions. All employees went through week-long seminars to introduce them to these ‘philosophies’.
Each of the philosophies is detailed in the book. The Product Design Philosophy alone comprises nearly 30 pages and is an expression of the company’s commitment to ‘make the best product’. This is seen to embrace not just functionality and aesthetics but environmental responsibility in its deepest sense. The aim is not just to minimise the impacts of production but to minimise whole-life impacts through addressing durability, repairability and the environmental impacts of care and cleaning.
This approach is perhaps most famously expressed in their ‘Don’t Buy This Jacket’ advert (below) but also through their publishing of more than 40 free repair guides for their products and through their dedicated repair facility, which is reported to have carried out more than 40,000 individual repairs in 2015.
“Let’s behave like owners, not consumers, and repair rather than inflict something new on the planet if we don’t truly need it. It’s a radical thought, but change can start with just a needle and thread”. (Rose Marcario, CEO, Patagonia)
So is Patagonia a sustainable business? Or is ‘sustainable business’ a contradiction in terms?
Chouinard is honest enough to admit that even the most sustainable business cannot fully resolve the tension between profit and planet. He acknowledges that “Patagonia will never be completely socially responsible. It will never make a totally sustainable nondamaging product”. But Chouinard, in spite of all of his idealism, is clearly also a pragmatist.
“Any attempt to achieve sustainability on this planet with more than seven million of us is doomed to fail. But rather than shut the doors, bury our cars, and become hermits, we can work towards sustainability, recognising that it’s an ever-receding summit.”
Amen to that.