Let My People Go Surfing | Ivan Chouinard

These are direct quotes from the book. They're sentences and paragraphs I've enjoyed and highlighted when I read the complete book. If you enjoy these snippets, I highly recommend you get your own copy of Let My People Go Surfing at patagonia.com or Amazon.

In anything at all, perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away, when a body has been stripped down to its nakedness.

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.”

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 to have 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.

I’ve always thought of myself as an 80 percenter. I like to throw myself passionately into a sport or activity until I reach about an 80 percent proficiency level. To go beyond that requires an obsession and degree of specialization that doesn’t appeal to me. Once I reach that 80 percent level I like to go off and do something totally different; that probably explains the diversity of the Patagonia product line—and why our versatile, multifaceted clothes are the most successful.

Using the capabilities of this new underwear as the basis of a system, we became the first company to teach the outdoor community, through essays in our catalog, the concept of layering. This approach involves wearing an inner layer against the skin for moisture transport, a middle layer of pile for insulation, and then an outer shell layer for wind and moisture protection.

We were the first catalog in the United States to use recycled paper.

Eventually Chouinard Equipment Ltd. filed for Chapter 11, a move that gave the employees time to gather capital for a buyout. They successfully purchased the assets, moved the company to Salt Lake City, and built their own company, Black Diamond Ltd., that to this day continues to make the world’s best climbing and backcountry ski gear.

We opened our first European store in Chamonix, France, the home base of the Alpine climbing world, in 1987, and a store in Tokyo in 1989.

On July 31, 1991, Black Wednesday, we let go 120 employees—20 percent of the workforce. That was certainly the single darkest day of the company’s history.

I’ve been a student of Zen philosophy for many years. In Zen archery, for example, you forget about the goal—hitting the bull’s-eye—and instead focus on all the individual movements involved in shooting an arrow. You practice your stance, reaching back and smoothly pulling an arrow out of the quiver, notching it on the string, controlling your breathing, and letting the arrow release itself.

As it turns out, the perfect place I’ve found to apply this Zen philosophy is the business world.

From a life-cycle analysis commissioned on the four fibers we used the most—cotton, wool, polyester, and nylon—we learned that the most damaging for the environment was industrially grown cotton. By spring of 1996 all Patagonia cotton clothing was switched over to 100 percent organically grown.

We are most proud of having given away twenty-two million dollars in cash and in-kind donations since 1985 to mostly grassroots conservational activists.

There were no crises except those that were invented by management to keep the company in yarak, a falconry term meaning when your falcon is superalert, hungry, but not weak, and ready to hunt.

Here are the main questions a Patagonia designer must ask about each product to see if it fits our standards:

  • Is It Functional?
  • Is It Multifunctional?
  • Is It Durable?
  • Does It Fit Our Customer?
  • Is It as Simple as Possible?
  • Is the Product Line Simple?
  • Is It an Innovation or an Invention?
  • Is It a Global Design?
  • Is It Easy to Care For and Clean?
  • Does It Have Any Added Value?
  • Is It Authentic?
  • Is It Art?
  • Are We Just Chasing Fashion?
  • Are We Designing for Our Core Customer?
  • Have We Done Our Homework?
  • Is It Timely?
  • Does It Cause Any Unnecessary Harm?

The first precept of industrial design is that the function of an object should determine its design and materials. Every design at Patagonia begins with a functional need. A piece of thermal underwear must wick and breathe and dry quickly. A paddling jacket has not only to repel and seal out water but also to allow a full range of arm movement. Function must dictate form.

Everything we personally own that’s made, sold, shipped, stored, cleaned, and ultimately thrown away does some environmental harm every step of the way, harm that we’re either directly responsible for or is done on our behalf. All the more reason, when we consider the purchase of anything, to ask ourselves, both as producers and consumers: Is this purchase necessary?

“I say beware of all enterprises that require new clothes….” - Thoreau

Because the overall durability of a product is only as good as its weakest element, the ultimate goal should be a product whose parts wear out at roughly the same time and only after a long life.

Someone once said that the poor can’t afford to buy cheap goods.

People have too many choices these days. They are tired of constantly having to make decisions, particularly when it takes a major effort to make intelligent decisions—i.e., knowing the difference between all the breathable/waterproof fabrics.

From time to time our own line gets too big; the differences between products become too small. When that happens, we know that Patagonia is not living up to its own philosophy.

Each product Patagonia adds to the line (without dropping an old one) requires the hiring of two and one-half new people.

The most responsible way for a consumer and a good citizen to buy clothes is to:

  • Buy used clothing
  • Avoid buying clothes you have to dry-clean or iron
  • Wash in cold water
  • Line dry when possible
  • Wear your shirt more than one day before you wash it
  • Consider faster-drying alternatives to 100 percent cotton for your travel clothes

A study by Dr. Thomas M. Power at the University of Montana states that only 10 to 15 percent of the money Americans spend on goods and services is necessary for survival. People spend the other 85 percent to 90 percent of their money for upgrades in quality.

In the center, or core circle, are our intended customers. These people are the dirt-baggers who, in most cases, have trouble even affording our clothes.

“Don’t spend money on gear. Spend it on airplane tickets.”

If everyone thinks you have a good idea, you’re too late. — Paul Hawken

In 1980 the average life span of a hard goods product was three years. Now it is three months or less.

Being first offers tremendous marketing advantages, not the least of which is you have no competition. Coming in second, even with a superior product at a better price, is often no substitute for just plain being first.

The key word is discovering instead of inventing. There’s simply no time for inventing.

Maintaining a sense of urgency throughout a company is one of the most difficult challenges in business.

Lastly, “Impossible.” The lamest of the lame excuses! Difficult maybe, or impractical, or too expensive, but rarely is anything impossible.

the best effort we can make toward causing no unnecessary harm is to make the best-quality products, ones that are durable, functional, beautiful, and simple.

Involve the Designer with the Producer: A rain jacket is better made when the producer understands from the start what the product needs to achieve and, conversely, when the designer understands what processes have to be followed and, finally, when everyone stays on the job and works as a team until it’s done.

Patagonia has never owned a fabric mill or a sewing shop.

Every production department of every company has a mandate to deliver 1. a quality product 2. on time and 3. at a reasonable cost. Although it’s management’s job to treat these three goals as complementary rather than contradictory, what does a company do when it must face a choice? Patagonia puts quality first, period. A more sales-driven company might sacrifice a degree of quality to achieve on-time delivery, and a mass marketer might sacrifice both quality and on-time delivery to maintain the lowest cost.

Again, like the Zen approach to archery or anything else, you identify the goal and then forget about it and concentrate on the process.

What I found out was that Japan is the easiest country in the world to do business in: The laws are straightforward; the government is probusiness; the customs inspectors are intelligent and honest. The reason American companies have had trouble breaking into the Japanese market is that they are trying to do it by the book, and the quality of their products aren’t up to Japanese standards.

My first principle of mail order argues that “selling” ourselves and our philosophy is equally important to selling product. Telling the Patagonia story and educating the Patagonia customer on layering systems, on environmental issues, and on the business itself are as much the catalog’s mission as is selling the products.

It becomes apparent that the global economy is not sustainable. It’s completely dependent on burning up cheap fossil fuel. Shipping goods by rail or by boat uses 400 BTUs per ton for each mile shipped. Truck freight uses more than 3,300 BTUs per ton, and air cargo uses 21,670 BTUs, to move a ton of goods one mile.

Over the years we have come upon a balance we find just about ideal: 55 percent product content and 45 percent devoted to message—essays, stories, and image photos. Whenever we have edged that content toward increased product presentation, we have actually experienced a decrease in sales.

Many companies communicate with their customers primarily through advertising. This grabs your attention but can’t hold it. A quick glance, and you’re back to the article you were reading or the show you were watching or on to someone else’s ad or the mute button.

Real adventure: defined best as a journey from which you may not come back alive—and certainly not as the same person

A photo of a real climber with a name on a real rock climb and showing a little skin can be a lot sexier than a half-naked nameless New York model posing as a climber.

we calculated that in 1994, the year we came out with Synchilla fleece made from recycled soda bottles, we generated five-million-dollars’ worth of free press for the company.

No company will respect us, no matter how much money we give away or how much publicity we receive for being one of the “100 Best Companies,” if we are not profitable. It’s okay to be eccentric, as long as you are rich; otherwise you’re just crazy.

Recently a worldwide survey of customers found that only 14 percent of Americans were likely to contact a company about a problem. In Europe the number was less than 8 percent, and in Japan only 4 percent. Correspondingly, other studies show that one-half to one-third of customers who have had problems will never purchase from that company again.

We don’t want to be a big company. We want to be the best company, and it’s easier to try to be the best small company than the best big company. We have to practice self-control.

Slow growth or no growth means the profits have to come from our being more efficient every year: increasing the quality of our product, maximizing the efficiency of our operations, and living within our means.

Being a publicly held corporation or even a partnership would put shackles on how we operate, restrict what we do with our profits, and put us on a growth/suicide track. Our intent is to remain a closely held private company, so we can continue to focus on our bottom line, doing good.

A master in the art of living draws no sharp distinction between his work and his play; his labor and his leisure; his mind and his body; his education and his recreation. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence through whatever he is doing, and leaves others to determine whether he is working or playing. To himself, he always appears to be doing both. — Francois August Rene Chateaubriand

So we seek out “dirtbags” who feel more at home in a base camp or on the river than they do in the office. All the better if they have excellent qualifications for whatever job we hire them for, but we’ll often take a risk on an itinerant rock climber that we wouldn’t on a run-of-the-mill MBA. Finding a dyed-in-the-wool businessperson to take up climbing or river running is a lot more difficult than teaching a person with a ready passion for the outdoors how to do a job.

A serious surfer doesn’t plan to go surfing next Tuesday at two o’clock. You go surfing when there are waves and the tide and wind are right. And you go ski powder when there’s powder snow!

A mother nursing her child during a meeting, commonplace in Ventura, is a regular reminder that the career versus child choices so many of us make in fact need not be choices.

We’ve had psychologists who specialize in organizational development tell us that Patagonia has a far above average number of very independent-minded employees. In fact our employees are so independent, we’re told, that they would be considered unemployable in a typical company.

Managers have short-term vision, implement strategic plans, and keep things running as they always have. Leaders take risks, have long-term vision, create the strategic plans, and instigate change.

I believe that for the best communication and to avoid bureaucracy, you should ideally have no more than a hundred people working in one location. This is an extension of the fact that democracy seems to work best in small societies, where people have a sense of personal responsibility. In a small Sherpa or Inuit village there’s no need to hire trash collectors or firemen; everyone takes care of community problems. And there’s no need for police; evil has a hard time hiding from peer pressure. The most efficient size for a city is supposed to be about 250,000 to 350,000 people, large enough to have all the culture and amenities of a city and still be governable— like Santa Barbara, Auckland, and Florence.

Thinking these dark thoughts doesn’t depress me; in fact I’m a happy person. I’m a Buddhist about it all. I’ve accepted the fact that there is a beginning and an end to everything. Maybe the human species has run its course and it’s time for us to go away and leave room for other, one hopes, more intelligent and responsible, life forms.

We are the last generation that can experience true wilderness.

I don’t really believe that humans are evil; it’s just that we are not very intelligent animals. No animal is so stupid and greedy as to foul its own nest— except humans. We are certainly not smart enough to foretell the long-term results of our everyday actions.

Most of the damage we cause to the planet is a result of our own ignorance. We go about blindly doing unnecessary damage because we are uncurious. Uncovering problems and ultimately finding solutions require asking a lot of questions. Unfortunately the grocery clerk can’t help you. You’re going to have to educate yourself.

Although cotton was grown without the use of chemicals for most of its known four-thousand-year history, today 25 percent of the annual worldwide insecticide use and 10 percent of the annual worldwide pesticide use are applied to conventionally grown cotton, even though cotton fields occupy less than 3 percent of the world’s farmland.

We struggled with the conflict between our environmental standards and our quality standards. We faced the fact that it made no sense to turn around and put all the toxic chemicals back into the finished fabric to keep it from shrinking or wrinkling—two logical reasons why all those chemicals had been introduced to the material over the years. In fact a typical cotton product labeled 100 percent cotton is on average only 73 percent cotton; all the rest is resins, plasticizers, and chemicals added in the finishing process.

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.

Even when cotton is grown without toxic chemicals, it still uses an inordinate amount of water and cannot be grown year after year without permanently depleting the soil. When a cotton garment is worn out, it is usually thrown away.

Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is a toxic, carcinogenic plastic used everywhere in our society. It’s in the coating on durable vinyl luggage, and it’s a plasticizer for printing on Tshirts.

One-third of the world’s forests have been cleared for logging and conversion to agriculture, and they are shrinking each year by an area equal to the size of Portugal. Tropical rain forests are being cleared at the rate of one hectare (2.47 acres) per second, and half the tropical forest is now lost.

It’s been estimated that with the amount of rice straw that is burned in the United States, you could build five million two-thousandsquare-foot houses a year.

To encourage better fuel economy and to support the development of alternative vehicles, the company pays two thousand dollars toward any employee’s purchase of a hybrid gas/electric car.

They were part of Patagonia’s internship program, which allows employees to leave their jobs for up to two months to work for an environmental group and still receive their Patagonia paychecks and benefits. Under certain circumstances, the company will also post bail for those who have taken a class in civil nonviolent disobedience and are subsequently arrested in support of environmental causes.

Limited liability corporations are institutions created explicitly to separate humans from the effects of their actions—making them, by definition, inhuman and inhumane. To the degree that we desire to live in a human and humane world—and, really, to the degree that we wish to survive—limited-liability corporations need to be eliminated. —Derrick Jensen

In 1996 we pledged to give 1 percent of our sales, meaning that whether we made money or not, whether we had a great year or a bad one, we had to give. It became not so much charity as a self-imposed “earth tax” for living on the planet, using up resources, and being part of the problem.

Creating Yosemite National Park was not Teddy Roosevelt’s idea; it was the activist John Muir who talked Roosevelt into ditching his Secret Service men and camping under the redwoods.

The Forest Service? State and local governments? Corporations like Pacific Lumber or Weyerhaeuser? I don’t trust any of them. The only ones I trust are small grassroots citizens organizations made up of people willing to tree-sit for months or stand in front of bulldozers. We need the river keepers, the bay keepers, the Forest Guardians, and the protesters who chain themselves to the front doors.

If you want to die the richest man, then just stay sharp. Keep investing, Don’t spend anything. Don’t eat any of the capital. Don’t have a good time. Don’t get to know yourself. Don’t give anything away. Keep it all. Die as rich as you can. But you know what? I heard an expression that puts it well: There’s no pocket on that last shirt. —Susie Tompkins Bell

Foundations are required by law to give at least 5 percent of their assets each year. In 2001, in the United States, they gave nearly thirty billion dollars.

Imagine if the president proposed that the next time you filed your income tax, the form had a place on the back where you could say, “I want 15 percent to go to this and 10 percent to go to that.” People would jump at the opportunity to say where their tax money goes. Right now you have no say, especially if your party isn’t in power. But if you tax yourself first, in the form of a donation to activists, you say where it goes.

Dante once said that the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in times of great moral crisis maintain their neutrality. —John F. Kennedy

It’s common thinking that nomadic people move when seasons change or resources run out, but they also pack up and move when the leaders see that everything is going too smoothly, when the people become lazy and complacent. The wise leaders know if they don’t move while they are strong, they won’t have the fortitude to move when the next crisis hits.

“In pleasant peace and security how suddenly the soul in a man begins to die.” —Robinson Jeffers

The American dream is to own your own business, grow it as quickly as you can until you can cash out, and retire to the golf courses of Leisure World. The business itself is really the product, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re selling shampoo or land mines.

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