Patagonia's Business Library is a toolkit for all shareholders of the planet
This new boxed set features 3 books, which are suitable for corporations and grassroots activists alike.
Patagonia, the outdoor gear and clothing store, has a reputation for being a radically progressive and environmentally-minded company. Its recipe for success, however, is no proprietary secret; in fact, Patagonia is eager to share the lessons learned in order to encourage other businesses to adopt similar high standards.
Now this is easier than ever, thanks to the release of the Patagonia Business Library. The three-book boxed set contains founder Yvon Chouinard’s famous autobiography and history of the company, as well as useful handbook for environmental activists, and Patagonia’s blueprint for becoming a responsible company.
On behalf of TreeHugger, I received an advance copy of the Business Library, and after reading all three books, share my thoughts on each below.
1. “Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman” by Yvon Chouinard
Yvon Chouinard originally wrote this autobiography and history of the company in 2005 as a philosophical manual for Patagonia’s employees. It turned out to be far more than that – a detailed description of a unique business model that has inspired countless other companies and shown that there’s another, better way to run a business than always putting profits first.
The book is highly readable, with Chouinard’s personal storyline running throughout. He’s always been an adventurer who scorned the word “businessman” and has struggled to accept his role as CEO of a tremendously successful outdoor gear retailer. While reading, I found it amusing how he’d mention crazy adventures in an off-hand manner, such as taking a few months off to drive to the tip of South America from California, or disappearing into the wilderness of the Rockies or the mountains of South Korea to climb for months on end. Other people would turn these stories into entire books, but for Chouinard, they’re mere paragraphs in a life of non-stop adventure.
He chronicles the company’s ups and downs, as his crew of “dirt bag climbers” learned what it meant to run a business; and he explores in depth the various philosophies that drive every decision Patagonia makes, setting it apart from other companies. These include designing a product that is repairable, functional, durable, simple, easy to care for, and does not cause unnecessary harm. In terms of ethical production, it means sourcing organic cotton whenever possible, expanding fair-trade certification, and prioritizing quality over on-time delivery and low cost.
Other chapters in the book discuss philosophies of marketing, management, distribution, and human resources.
As always, a central theme is Patagonia’s commitment to furthering environmental fights that it deems worthwhile. It has thrown its weight behind many different campaigns over the year, from Planned Parenthood and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, to preventing logging in British Columbia and restoring the Ventura River in California. Patagonia was also the founder of 1% for the Planet, an alliance of businesses pledging to donate at least 1 percent of annual sales toward efforts to protect our natural environment.
That Patagonia is a groundbreaker is undeniable. Whether the company continues to uphold such exemplary dedication to the environment remains to be seen, particularly in light of recent discoveries about the colossal problem of microfiber pollution by synthetic fabrics. I’ve read Patagonia’s blog posts and the studies it has commissioned, but was disappointed that Chouinard never mentioned it in the revised edition of this book; perhaps it was published beforehand.
2. “Tools for Grassroots Activists: Best Practices for Success in the Environmental Movement,” edited by Nora Gallagher & Lisa Myers
Every 18 months for the past two decades Patagonia has hosted a Tools for Grassroots Activists Conference, where experts meet with activists to teach them how to be most effective in their campaigns. Chouinard describes it as “one of the most important services Patagonia provides”:
“These people are often isolated, scared, and bravely passionate, and most of them are woefully unprepared to confront big business or big government with their teams of attorneys and ‘hired experts.’ By giving them the tools to present their position clearly and effectively, we do as much good as by giving them financial support.”
I found this book to be the most intriguing of all. Each chapter features a presentation given by thinkers such as Annie Leonard (from The Story of Stuff), Bill McKibben (of 350.org), Jane Goodall, Wade David, and Dave Foreman, among many others. They explore radically different topics, from how to use Twitter, to organizing, fundraising, and lobbying effectively. How to develop a strategy, how to run a good communications department, and how to create powerful print materials are all included.
The book is exactly what it promises to be – a set of tools that is hugely helpful to anyone wanting to be heard and make a difference in the world.
3. “The Responsible Company: What We’ve Learned from Patagonia’s First 40 Years” by Yvon Chouinard & Vincent Stanley
The smallest volume in the Patagonia Boxed Business Set is called “The Responsible Company.” Just over 130 pages in length, it aims to address the complex question of how business should be conducted in a world that is facing environmental crisis. In other words, how one should deal with “the unintended consequences of a 200-year-old industrial model that can no longer be sustained ecologically, socially, or financially.”
The book chooses to use the term “responsible” rather than “sustainable,” because no business activity these days is truly sustainable. Everything, no matter how hard we try, interferes with Nature’s capacity to regenerate itself and leaves its mark; but Patagonia maintains that there are varying degrees of harm, and that every company’s should strive to cause as little harm as possible. Indeed, this is part of Patagonia’s mission statement.
In the eyes of authors Chouinard and Stanley, there are five key elements to which a company must adhere in order to call itself responsible. These include maintaining the health of a business (both financial and environmental) and holding oneself responsible for the wellbeing of workers, customers, community, and nature. Also crucial is transparency, particularly in a post-consumer society when customers are ever more concerned about the origin of the products they buy and how they rank ethically compared to competitors.
Detailed checklists comprise the last section in the book, ranging from customer policies to worker compensation to energy savings (among others). These encourage employers to ensure that as many issues are being addressed as possible, and creates a powerful visual of what is possible for a company that truly cares about its impact on the natural and human world.
“The Responsible Company” is a useful handbook for companies of all sizes, as well as entrepreneurs starting out with new business ideas. It is inspiring to read about the various ways in which Patagonia has prioritized “meaningful work” for its employees, understanding how people will be motivated to work well if they love what they’re doing.
“Meaningful work, it turns out, is not only doing what you love but also giving back to the world. The two combined create the ground for a kind of ordinary human excellence that any business can treasure.”
ORDER Patagonia Business Library, $49.95