BOOK REVIEW | "LET MY PEOPLE GO SURFING: THE EDUCATION OF A RELUCTANT BUSINESSMAN" BY YVON CHOUINARD
photo & text by nacrowe
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.