“Let My People Go Surfing”, Yvon Chouinard

“Let My People Go Surfing” is the most inspiring book I’ve read in a while. It was written by Yvon Chouinard, the founder and owner of Patagonia, Inc. Originally, the book was intended to be a philosophical manual for the company’s employees. But, to the surprise of everyone at Patagonia, it gained popularity, became a bestseller and succeeded in influencing people all over the world.

Personally, I stumbled upon “Let My People Go Surfing” because my dad was reading it. I knew of Patagonia before and have admired them since hearing about the way that they conduct business. However, I was unaware of there being a book about Patagonia, describing how Yvon runs his company. I was therefore thrilled to hear that “Let My People Go Surfing” existed.

Yes, for those who wonder, the book is definitely advertisement for the company. But, that doesn’t make reading it uninteresting. There’s a lot to learn from Patagonia. It’s an unconventional company that genuinely wants to do good in the world. If I ever start a company, Patagonia will definitely be the first one to pop into mind when in need of inspiration. They are, without a doubt, my favourite clothing company.

The part of the book that I particularly enjoyed was the one about Patagonia’s philosophies. I took notes while reading and made a short summary of what I found compelling here:


Financial philosophy

– Profit happens when “you do everything else right”. Making profit is therefore not even part of the company’s mission statement. The amount of good that the company can accomplish is more important.

– A few of Patagonia’s unwritten rules regarding finance:

  1. No debt.
  2. Growth at a “natural rate”.
    The company grows when the products are constantly out-of-stock and customers are frustrated. Demand should not be created artificially by advertising for people that don’t need the products in the first place (such as advertising in the Vanity Fair for example).
    Why? Because it’s hard to keep the company running the way you want it to – without sacrificing core values – when it is growing very fast. “It’s easier to try to be the best small company than the best big company.”
  3. Transparency when dealing with the government.
    Even if it is possible to legally modify the reported earnings from one year to the next, this shouldn’t be done. Taxes should be paid with ‘honesty’.
  4. “Our intent is to remain a closely held private company, so we can continue to focus on our bottom line: doing good.”

Product design philosophy:

The company strives to “make the best quality product” of its kind. Yvon believes that, contrary to taste, quality is objective. He developed a checklist of criteria that would help Patagonia’s designers develop quality products. Here is a small part of the checklist:

  1.  Is the product easy to care for/ clean? This is important because the postsale care of a clothing product has the environmental impact of as much as 4 times the entire manufacturing process.
  2. Is the product repairable? “A zipper should be sewn in to be easily replaced without the entire jacket having to be taken apart”.
  3. Is the product functional/ multifunctional? “Why buy two pieces of gear when one will do the work of two?”
  4. Does the product cause any unnecessary harm?
  5. Is the product as simple as possible? “Good design is as little design as possible”.
  6. (…)

Product design philosophy – personal thoughts

Creating quality products is extremely important for Patagonia. I love that this isn’t tied to profit. The company will, for example, repair clothes for free and make decisions that won’t directly benefit them in terms of money. They do these unconventional things because building a company that they are proud of is more important than making money. They also trust (as stated in the financial philosophy part) that profit happens when “you do everything else right”.
So, why worry about money?

Also, I want to add that the product design checklist above has taken years for Patagonia to develop.  Implementing each point is difficult and I think that they are still working on perfecting the quality of each of their products. For example, Yvon wrote in the book that “the way to cause the least amount of harm in the making of clothing is to be aware of what you are doing in every step of the process from the farmer’s field or mill to the customer.” This is, however, easier said than done. For instance:

The air circulating system wasn’t functioning properly in one of Patagonia’s stores (it was just recirculating the same air). This was noticed when employees started complaining about headaches. It was later found that they had been breathing in formaldehyde.
Instead of simply fixing the air circulating system, questions were asked. Apparently, most 100% pure cotton clothing is only 73% cotton. The rest is composed of chemicals (formaldehyde) used to prevent wrinkling. Patagonia was unaware of that fact until the incident. They have since switched to organic cotton but, if questions hadn’t been asked, they wouldn’t have known about the importance of organic cotton.

Human resource philosophy

Ultimately, Patagonia wants a company where the employees see work and play as the same thing. Additionally, the employees should be able to view themselves as the customers for the products they create.

Culture: Patagonia seeks diverse and passionate people that love the outdoors. “We can hardly continue to make the best outdoor clothing if we become primarily an ‘indoor’ culture”.

Benefits: (you can learn more about the benefits here)

* Let My People Go Surfing flextime policy: employees are allowed to work flexible hours, as long as it doesn’t negatively impact others and as long as the work eventually gets done.
Why? “This flexibility allows us to keep valuable employees who love their freedom and sports too much to settle for the constraints of a more regimented work environment. We’ve found that rarely has an employee abused that privilege.”
* On-site child care.
* Paid maternity/paternity leave: 16 weeks for the mother and 12 for the father – fully paid.
* Cafeteria with healthy organic food.
* Comprehensive health insurance.

Environmental philosophy

Finally, a large part of the book examined what the company does to “inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis”. This chapter was super interesting to me. More information about it can be found here.


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