BOOK REVIEW | "LET MY PEOPLE GO SURFING: THE EDUCATION OF A RELUCTANT BUSINESSMAN" BY YVON CHOUINARD
so im taking a course at the moment on SUPPLY CHAIN management and recently there was a focus in the text about how corporations have a decision matrix that includes shareholders, specifically the wider societal and environmental impact of their operations. LET MY PEOPLE GO SURFING: THE EDUCATION OF RELUCTANT BUSINESSMAN (PENGUIN, 2005) written by PATAGONIA founder YVON CHOUNINARD basically calls bullshit on that whole notion. he makes his position very clear that corporations were originally created and continually maintained to limit the liability of their actions on a finite global ecosystem. by definition their objective and reason for being is to create efficiencies within the SUPPLY CHAIN, PRODUCTION and DISTRIBUTION of products and maximize profit. full stop.
anything else is just marketing and corporate propaganda.
which brings me to this interesting book about the history, philosophy and multi-pronged environmental efforts of the privately-owned benefit corporation PATAGONIA, INC and its multi-pronged in-house subsidiaries that produce everything from food, clothing to even surf boards. a cynic could argue that this book is a clever piece of propaganda aimed at convincing customers of the moral superiority of the PATAGONIA brand and its environmental efforts, which could justify the relatively high price of their products. for the record when i was a PEACE CORPS volunteer stationed in the bitterly cold northern mountainous region of ALBANIA bordering KOSOVO, i brought with me both shell jacket and a micro-puff jacket by the company that kept me warm. so if i have a bias, there it is. thats all i own by them and i still have both years later.
but as company propaganda goes, this book is really less a hagiography of the founder and his company and more a manual about how to go about innovating a business in a way that makes business sense. to me that is the core of this book and its intent. if anything, CHOUNINARD is attempting to proselytize future entrepreneur's to consider the real cost of their company and consider how to make them more environmentally sustainable. the example provided repeatedly throughout this book (which comprehensively goes over everything from their company philosophy on PRODUCT DESIGN and PRODUCTION to DISTRIBUTION, MARKETING, HUMAN RESOURCING and MANAGEMENT among other topics) is the risky switch the company made to organic content in the mid 1990s. sourcing this material was more costly to the company and required more intensive labor on behalf of the farmers, but those initial costs proved profitable long term and exerted less strain on the environment (turns out not using all those industrial chemicals and pesticides makes the soil more healthy and more productive, who knew?). CHOUNINARD claims that the cost of innovating his SUPPLY CHAIN in the short term was immense but was a sound business decision long term, even if the consumer 1) didn't notice the switch and 2) according to marketing research didn't care.
my takeaway from this book is that there is a hidden cost to SUPPLY CHAIN decisions that most companies, especially corporations working at scale, dont consider in part because they are not forced to. their goal is to be profitable. everything else is a externality. unfortunately this cycle of production and mindless consumerism as a means of insuring perpetual economic growth is a fantasy.
worse yet it is suicide.
CHOUNINARD doesnt claim to have all the answers. his company pollutes and creates waste, but the culture he created is fighting the good fight from the inside. it is attempting to setup the infrastructure to reduce waste by sourcing materials responsibly, seeking better work environments (including on-site child care), creating empowering specialized programs for workers of foreign mills and factories and instituting policies such as allowing customers to return long-worn products for repair. the list goes on.
probably most celebrated is their 1% FOR THE PLANET commitment whereby they pledged 1% of total sales to preservation and restoration of the environment. this is done through contributions to small local advocacy groups, not institutionalized groups and foundations which large overhead. they have committed nearly $90 million over the course of the company's history.
even if you are a cynic, that type of putting your money where your mouth is makes you take notice and they are encouraging others to make a stand and joing the effort. so in essence this book is not CHOUNINARD celebrating his efforts, it is him providing context and concrete strategies for his competitors to do the same. which is innately honorable. so kudos for him
i just dont think corporate AMERICA is going to change. ever. the efforts and contents of this book is outside their mindset. outside their interest. we are a planet of finite resources and they will suck it dry like the vampires they are. we are all doomed.
its interesting to consider that all FORTUNE 500 companies began once as a startup. even a monolithic, globally dominant, seemingly omnipresent, iconic brand such as NIKE. as of 2020 the company is conservatively estimated to be worth $32 BILLION, but at one point it germinated as a "crazy idea" by STANFORD BUSINESS grad and former UNIVERSITY OF OREGON letterman long-distance runner PHIL KNIGHT. SHOE DOG (SIMON & SCHUSTER, 2016) is his memoir and explains the uneven trajectory of NIKE from its inception to its public IPO in 1980.
at STANFORD a young KNIGHT developed a business plan for a self-described crazy idea of his that saw an opening for JAPAN to dominate the global footwear industry much as it had done with consumer electronics. this was due to heavy government subsidies that gave them an unmatched advantage in the global marketplace. KNIGHT thought that if he could become a stateside distributor for a major JAPANESE player than he could take on ADIDAS' dominance as the premier shoemaker. on a lark he went to JAPAN, having never traveled abroad and convinced ONITSUKA to let his "company" BLUE RIBBON SPORTS serve as a distributor. the name was made up on the spot during his meeting with them in KOBE.
long story short, KNIGHT and his assembled team of misfits did very well selling them stateside and built up their market over more than half a decade. this despite maxing out creditors and leveraging everything over and over again to promote growth. it was a slow rise with potentially deficits around the corner always set to sink the fledgling company.
at some point they had a suspicion and later learned that they were about to be cut out and replaced as ONITSUKA's distributor. the NIKE line of football cleats they initially made were meant as a hedging bet against losing ONITSUKA. the name NIKE, the SWOOSH and other legendary corporate iconography where made on the fly out of necessity in short order with no time to rethink such. that alone is quite stunning given how much image and the promotion of such thereof is synonymous with the brand. KNIGHT throughout the book consistently complains about advertising and doesnt see a need for it. again, just a staggeringly insightful comment given their famous brand identity and long-established mass market appeal promoted by one of the most successful advertising campaigns of all time (its a real pity he doesnt get into how "JUST DO IT" came about, was looking forward to learning about that).
after lawsuits with various entities NIKE goes public and the next corporate phase begins. it is during that phase we have all the well known athlete tie-ins (MICHAEL JORDAN, TIGER WOODS, SERENA WILLIAMS, CRISTIANO RONALDO, KOBE BRYANT, MIA HAMM, ANDRE AGASSI, LEBRON JAMES, NEYMAR, SIMONE BILES, CARL LEWIS, KEVIN DURANT, JACKIE JOYNER-KERSEE, etc.) with the exception of running legend STEVE PREFONTAINE who was very much a part of the initial and identity of of the nascent company in its early development.
what i took from this memoir is the amount of continual sacrifice it takes to establish a viable company in a competitive field from scratch. learning about the early history of NIKE almost felt like the reading of a gambling addict, someone who routinely bet the house and survived. the perseverance and focus of KNIGHT is quite remarkable. i also learned that a brand identity can be far removed from the company itself, as few people in the early staff were able to run. in fact the major players, aside from KNIGHT, included the morbidly obese, chain smokers and even a paraplegic. what they shared was a vision and a faith in their leadership, a faith in KNIGHT that at times he did not share himself but willed himself through.
obviously there is the issue of outsourcing production to ASIA, specifically JAPAN then TAIWAN and later CHINA, which has dogged their corporate image over the years. KNIGHT does address such but through the lens of how the company has raised factory conditions from their previous levels of cleanliness and overall sanitariness. its a hard sell that i wasnt totally convinced of, partly having myself been to places like CAMBODIA where AMERICA companies employ textile factories that have subhuman working conditions. that argument falls on jaded ears im sorry to say.
my thought is that such is the limit of MARKET CAPITALISM, which beholds itself to the stockholder and the god of profit, not our better angels. despite how well intentioned his pronouncements of his familiarity with the precepts of BUDDHISM are throughout this memoir, it is as if he forget the basic tenet of RIGHT OCCUPATION. the idea being that it is a moral imperative to conduct work that does not cause others to suffer. just saying.
like i said before, this book is not the story of MICHAEL JORDAN or other famous endorsees of NIKE, it is about the early struggle of the company to survive. arguably that is a more interesting phase in the trajectory of its life as a firm. KNIGHT Is a gifted writer with many well-constructed running analogies for business concepts that i will remember and carry forward. if learning about what makes a company work and prosper and survive financial, political and competitive obstacles to flourish than this is a great book to consider. if you are interested in the history and evolution of footwear specifically, than this is probably not the book for you. the fact that they are selling shoes is largely inconsequential in the narrative presented outside of KNIGHT's appreciation for RUNNING and the similarities regarding the task-obsessed mentality of both an athlete and a business owner.
i thought it was a compelling story and look forward to seeing the film as it was recently optioned with participation from KNIGHT himself. should be an interesting biopic.
ZUCKED: WAKING UP TO THE FACEBOOK CATASTROPHE (PENGUIN, 2020) is a warning against a dystopian future currently under development whereby various SURVEILLANCE CAPITALISTS like AMAZON, GOOGLE, MICROSOFT and yes, FACEBOOK, are monitoring your online and offline activities in real time and employing behavior modification at scale.
that last part is the real kicker.
the idea that your emotions and behavior can be modified as well as everyone else collectively on the site. to the common end user of a SOCIAL MEDIA platform (TWITTER, INSTAGRAM, FACEBOOK) there is an assumption that site is neutral, which is not true. seamless and invisible proprietary algorithms are constantly A/B-ing content to build a more complete psychological profile of the user that is in turn utilized to sell ads to advertisers. essentially the USER IS THE PRODUCT. persuasive technology such as AUTOPLAY/ENDLESS FEEDS, VARIABLE REWARDS, SOCIAL VALIDATION LOOPS and even outright PROPAGANDA is utilized to manipulate you to spend more time on the platform. as the author points out, these "web 2.0 startups focused their technology on the weakest elements of human psychology. They set out to create habits, evolved habits into addictions, and laid the ground work for giant fortunes."
the risk of such on the individual level is that PREFERENCE BUBBLES are established which consist of content and like-minded groups suggested by the algorithm and the reinforce biases and limit conflicting content, effectively creating a self-imposed STOCKHOLM SYNDROME. these PREFERENCE BUBBLES metastasize into FILTER BUBBLES which a dedicated user is often not even cognizant of, their skewed reality no turning into its own TRUMAN SHOW-esque alternative reality.
at scale on a societal level these FILTER BUBBLES are corrosive to national unity and democratic ideals. these networks incentivize extreme positions as such lead to further engagement and the real-world consequences include ethnic and political violence as well as DOMESTIC TERRORISM. it's a harsh dystopian reality we are being lead into with no real choice in the matter. as ZUCKED points out, only "the data consumers give up often accounts for 1 percent" of their total data. that means your search engine searches over time is nothing compare what the SURVEILLANCE CAPITALIST apparatus purchases off of third-parties and monitors utilizing various products throughout the web. it is fascinating and disturbing.
but let me back up for a sec.
the author, ROGER MCNAMEE, is a noted VENTURE CAPITALIST who was an advisor to MARK ZUCKERBERG in the years prior to FACEBOOK's IPO as he was being bid upon by then-competitors like YAHOO.
as much as ZUCKED focuses on the overreach of SURVEILLANCE CAPITALISM and the climatic global, political, cultural and social destabilization that such has wrought, it is also equally focused on the ethos that emerged in post-2000 SILICON VALLEY that informed its trajectory.
in essence the tech community in the 2000s benefited from almost 30+ years of innovation that was tempered only by the limitations of the available technological infrastructure (bandwidth, processing power, storage, memory). in the 2000s these obstacles were effectively limitless. before these limitations meant that software developers and engineers had to be elegant, clever and efficient in how they wrote code. in the 2000s you had what is known as the "lean startup" model whereby you could present an ever evolving product and address issues as they emerge via user feedback. most emerging technologies utilized this cost effective model at the time. effectively it meant that little forethought was put into the possible future ramifications of new technologies and potential complications.
along with this new business model were the dual reinforcing ideologies of LIBERTARIANISM and NEOLIBERLAISM.
LIBERTARIANISM is the idea that there should be minimal intervention by the state in the market and private matters. this political stance promoted the idea of the good of the individual over that of the group and essentially absolved the adherent from responsibility from disruptions rooted in their greed. it also promoted a false notion of a MERITOCRACY, that leaders in the SILICON VALLEY were successful and in positions of power due to their own intellect and strategery and not (more likely) inherited wealth or connections. LIBERTARIANISM allowed many white men to promote a FALSE FEEDBACK LOOP that justified conformity and a homogenous workplace along ethnic and gender lines.
related to LIBERTARIANISM is the economic belief system known as NEOLIBERALISM (ubiquitous in both parties since REAGAN ADMINISTRATION), which advocates that markets should replace government as the rule setter of economic activity. you can probably see where this is heading. adherents to NEOLIBERALISM believe as a matter of principle that tech companies (with unmitigated economic, social, cultural, political and psychological influence and power never before seen in the history of mankind) are the sole rightful bearers of policing their own industry. for the most part (EUROPE being the exception) these SURVEILLANCE CAPITALISTS have been allowed to continue unabated from antitrust regulation.
it is a major problem.
luckily books such as this are adding to the chorus of criticism by researchers and academics that hopefully will counter commonly held LIBERTARIAN and NEOLIBERAL stances that were based on a past outdated, pre-digital model of the economy. DEREGULATION was a mistake and we are bearing the fruit of such now.
riveting book that really shook my understanding of myself and my relationship to technology and society. well worth your time to check out and read.