As a child, Yvon Chouinard moved to Southern California with little English and less money. Today his company, Patagonia, earns more than $600 million a year and is a beacon and benchmark for sustainable capitalism. This is the amazing story of a young man who found escape by scaling the world's highest peaks, of an innovator who used his father's blacksmith tools to fashion equipment that changed climbing forever, and of the entrepreneur who brought doing good and having a blast into the heart of a business.
"Wonderful... a moving autobiography, the story of a unique business, and a detailed blueprint for hope." --Jared Diamond, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Guns, Germs, and Steel
"For everyone who is alternately outraged and depressed by the wave of greed that has been the hallmark of corporate America in the twenty-first century, there is a name that inspires hope: Yvon Chouinard....Unique and compelling." --San Francisco Chronicle
"Chouinard's biography, Let My People Go Surfing, reveals a fascinating and colorful character....For all of our sakes, it seems the responsible thing for companies to do is follow Chouinard's ascent." --USA Today
"No matter what you do, you will find essential guidance and inspiration in Let My People Go Surfing." --Dave Foreman, The Rewilding Institute
I'VE BEEN A BUSINESSMAN for almost 50 years. It's as difficult for me to say those words as it is for someone to admit to being an alcoholic or a lawyer.
I've never respected the profession. It's business that has to take the majority of the blame for being the enemy of nature, for destroying native cultures, for taking from the poor and giving to the rich, and for poisoning the earth with the effluent from its factories. Yet business can produce food, cure disease, control population, employ people, and generally enrich our lives. And it can do these good things and make a profit without losing its soul.
My company, Ventura, California-based Patagonia Inc., maker of technical outdoor apparel and gear, is an ongoing experiment. Founded in 1973, it exists to challenge conventional wisdom and present a new style of responsible enterprise. We believe the accepted model of capitalism, which necessitates endless growth and deserves the blame for the destruction of nature, must be displaced. Patagonia and its thousand employees have the means and the will to prove to the rest of the corporate world that doing the right thing makes for good, financially sound business.
One of my favorite sayings about entrepreneurship is "If you want to understand the entrepreneur, study the juvenile delinquent." The delinquent is saying with his actions, "This sucks. I'm going to do my own thing." Since I had never wanted to be a businessman, I needed a few good reasons to be one. One thing I did not want to change, even if we got serious: Work had to be enjoyable on a daily basis. We all had to come to work on the balls of our feet and go up the stairs two steps at a time. We needed to be surrounded by friends who could dress whatever way they wanted, even be barefoot. We all needed flextime to surf the waves when they were good or ski the powder after a big snowstorm or stay home and take care of a sick child. We needed to blur the distinction between work and play and family.
Breaking the rules and making my own system work is the creative part of management that's particularly satisfying for me. But I don't jump into things without doing my homework. In the late seventies, when Patagonia was really starting to grow some legs, I read every business book I could find, searching for a philosophy that would work for us. I was especially interested in books on Japanese and Scandinavian styles of management, because I wanted to find a role model for the company; the American way of doing business offered only one of many possible routes.
In growing our young company, however, we still used many traditional practices-increasing the number of products, opening new dealers and new stores of our own, developing new foreign markets-and soon we were in serious danger of outgrowing our breeches. By the late eighties we were expanding at a rate that, if sustained, would have made us a billion-dollar company in another decade. To reach that theoretical mark, we would have to begin selling to mass merchants or department stores. This challenged the fundamental design principles we had established for ourselves as the makers of the best products, compromised our commitment to the environment, and began to raise serious questions about the future. Can a company that wants to make the best outdoor clothing in the world be the size of Nike? Can we meet the bottom line without giving up our goals of good stewardship and long-term sustainability? Can we have it all?
It would take 20 years, and the near collapse of our company, to find the answers.
My lifelong adventure in business took root in Southern California. My family had moved from Lisbon, Maine, to Burbank, California, in 1946, when I was eight, because my mother, the real adventurer among us, thought the drier climate would help my father's asthma. My father was a tough French Canadian who worked as a journeyman plasterer, carpenter, electrician, and plumber, and I had an older brother and two older s