“Let My People Go Surfing” – 8 philosophies from Patagonia for your business

By Fiona Stephenson

If ever you wanted proof that business can be a force for good, the autobiography of Patagonia’s founder and owner, Yvon Chouinard, is the book for you. Patagonia’s eight philosophies guide the business through all its operations.

“Let My People Go Surfing” by Yvon Chouinard is the story of US outdoor clothing and equipment company Patagonia, long regarded as a global pioneer in sustainability. Ahead of its time, Patagonia has always put purpose before profit and has remained true to its values, despite phenomenal growth.

Core to Patagonia’s success are eight philosophies, which are an expression of the company’s values. Written to guide the business through the process of designing, manufacturing and selling clothing, they are guidelines to the company’s approach and are communicated to every employee.

Yvon Chouinard writes, “In every long-lasting business, the methods of conducting business may constantly change, but the values, the culture, and the philosophies remain constant”.

Patagonia’s philosophies can be applied to other businesses – perhaps they will provide inspiration for your organisation.

Patagonia’s eight philosophies

  1. Product design philosophy

The raison d’être of Patagonia is to ‘make the best product’, which is the cornerstone of the business philosophy. Patagonia defines ‘the best’ as products that are functional, multifunctional (“why buy two pieces of gear when one will do the work of both?”), durable, well fitted, simple, easy to care for, authentic and thoroughly tested, and that provide added value and don’t cause unnecessary harm.

  1. Production philosophy

The challenge for any company serious about making the best product of its kind is to recreate on an industrial scale the hand knitter’s devotion to quality. Faithfully executing Patagonia’s designs means following six production principles: involving the designer with the producer, developing long-term relationships with suppliers and contractors, always putting quality first (above on-time delivery and low cost), taking extra steps at the start of production to make sure all processes are set up correctly (rather than making costly corrections further down the production line), and borrowing ideas from other disciplines.

  1. Distribution philosophy

Patagonia’s products are sold wholesale to dealers, through its own retail stores, through mail order and through the Internet – worldwide. This diversity of distribution has been a tremendous advantage for Patagonia, since if one area is performing poorly risk is minimised.

  1. Image philosophy

Patagonia’s image stems from the values, outdoor pursuits and passions of its founders and employees: that of authentic, hardcore, quality products made by the same people who use them. The image has evolved over the years to include the culture of a new generation of climbers, kayakers, fisherman and surfers who make the best outdoor clothing in the world, with a commitment to wildness.

  1. Financial philosophy

Patagonia strives to balance the funding of environmental activities with the desire to continue in business for the next 100 years. It views profit as necessary but not the end goal. It’s a privately owned company and there is no desire to sell it or to sell stock to outside investors. Chouinard doesn’t want Patagonia to be a big company – purely the best company.

  1. Human resource philosophy

Patagonia’s working culture stems from its origins as a small company designing and making climbing equipment for employees and their friends. There was no distinction between those who used the products and those who made them.

Today, Patagonia selects employees who will fit with the company culture and it values diversity of all kinds.  With a mind-boggling average of 900 people applying for each job vacancy, it takes its time to find the right fit. As much as possible it hires from within, to keep the company culture strong, and then takes the time to train.

Patagonia has always allowed employees to work flexible hours, as long as the work gets done with no negative impacts on others. The Let My People Go Surfing flexitime policy allow employees to “catch a good swell, go bouldering for an afternoon, pursue an education, or get home in time to greet the kids when they come down from the school bus”.

This flexibility allows the company to keep valuable employees who love their freedom and sports. The benefits package is generous but makes good business sense: comprehensive health insurance is offered (to attract serious athletes to work in retail stores) and on-site child care is provided (since parents are more productive if they’re not worrying about the wellbeing of their children).

  1. Management philosophy

Patagonia supports decisions made through consensus, and an open office with no doors or separations. Chouinard believes the best leadership is by example and his office is like everyone else’s, he pays for his own lunch in the cafeteria and he always tries to be available. Parking places are reserved for fuel-efficient cars, no matter who owns them.

  1. Environmental philosophy

Action is the basis for the environmental philosophy at Patagonia. “Since our main reason for being in business is to work on changing the way governments and corporations ignore our environmental crisis, action is absolutely necessary,” says Chouinard.

The company’s environmental action began in the 1970s by trying to prevent physical damage to the rock walls of Yosemite. An essay about ‘clean climbing’ (climbing without changing the rock) was included in the annual product catalogue. This marked the start of a number of campaigns communicated through catalogues. Over the years others have included a call to vote for the environment and to stop buying unnecessary products – the ‘Don’t Buy This Jacket’ campaign. In fact, only 55 per cent of Patagonia’s catalogues are devoted to products: 45 per cent are devoted to conveying messages and campaigns.

 “Let My People Go Surfing” by Yvon Chouinard was first published in 2005 by the Penguin Group.