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Lecture from on high

Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman; Yvon Chouinard; Penguin Press: 264 pp., $26.95

October 11, 2005|Michael Hiltzik | Times Staff Writer

Let My People Go Surfing

The Education of a Reluctant Businessman

Yvon Chouinard

Penguin Press: 264 pp., $26.95


ANYONE who has been cornered at a party by a true believer -- someone who is perfectly right in principle but insufferable in person -- will know what it's like to read "Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman."

Yvon Chouinard -- founder, owner and spiritual life force of Ventura-based Patagonia Inc. -- has filled this "memoir/manifesto," so billed by its publisher, with striking photographs and numerous adventure vignettes, and it comes adorned with rapturous blurbs from such other leaders of the doing-well-by-doing-good school as Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry's and Anita Roddick of the Body Shop. About one-third of the text is personal and corporate history, and the rest is the manifesto.

Outlines of Chouinard's life story are familiar to his admirers. Born in 1939 to a French Canadian family in Maine, he immigrated with them to California at age 7. After graduating high school, he worked briefly with a detective firm employed by Howard Hughes, while passing his free time surfing and mountain climbing with friends. Soon he was forging his own mountaineering equipment and selling spares to fellow climbers. As he tells it, the business just sort of happened around him.

Chouinard eventually branched out into clothing for outdoors enthusiasts and soon expanded into the large, nebulous category of sportswear. Despite a couple of false starts and business reversals, Patagonia, which Chouinard owns with his wife, Malinda, now sells about $230 million a year in clothing and equipment.

Chouinard says -- and the evidence supports him -- that he tries to conform to the highest environmental labor principles. Patagonia has been a leader in providing its employees with on-site child care. Its headquarters perks, including yoga classes and a vegetarian lunchroom, are legendary. Its polyester garments are made from such recycled materials as discarded plastic bottles. In siting urban retail stores, it prefers to refurbish historic buildings rather than build anew on bulldozed parcels, even if that means forgoing prime locations.

This is genuinely laudable, but Chouinard is not one of those do-gooders who work quietly in the background. He may be as sensitive as John Muir, but in writing, he's about as humble as Donald Trump. The pose of reluctant businessman allows him to treat most other businessmen with disdain. In the first paragraph of "Let My People Go Surfing," he proclaims: "It's business that has to take the majority of the blame for being the enemy of nature, for destroying native cultures, for taking from the poor and giving to the rich, and for poisoning the earth with the effluent from its factories."

The book is punctuated with similar chestnuts of proletarian hauteur, but as soul stirring as Patagonia's economic credo might be, it's also rather hypocritical. How can you paint other businesspeople as soulless, marauding despoilers when your own business relies on mined metals and petroleum products to manufacture high-priced goods and transport them to customers? No matter how conservative Patagonia may be in its environmental ethos, its impact isn't zero.

Clearly, Chouinard has made some tricky choices. If Patagonia sold its goods only to people who needed them -- those "bouldering at Skyland near Crested Butte," or "watching the sun set from a high alpine perch," to quote its catalog copy -- then its market would be smaller and the environmental impact of its manufacturing and shipping even more modest.

But let's be clear: Some of the customers the company serves can most likely afford such purchases thanks to paychecks from the same employers Chouinard curses as enemies of nature and poisoners of the earth.

True, Chouinard acknowledges that sticking sedulously to one's principles is not always simple. For years he insisted that layoffs were "unthinkable" at Patagonia, and when the time came to let 120 people go, it pained him deeply. Who can doubt it?

But it's less clear whether he really absorbed the real lesson that in business, some actions result from necessity, not moral degeneracy.

Chouinard does seem to understand that his choices have allowed Patagonia to pursue its objectives in its own way, but such choices aren't so easily available to every business. Patagonia is a niche marketer whose sportswear and sporting equipment is of very high quality but is also high-priced. Chouinard is content to grow Patagonia modestly and evinces no ambition to turn it into a multinational Microsoft of sportswear. He can avoid selling stock to the public, which would fuel faster growth but interfere with the company's cherished political and environmental activism.

A man who has stuck to his principles as assiduously and publicly as Chouinard deserves the right to a harangue -- and even to a certain amount of smug self-satisfaction. But there's a limit. "Let My People Go Surfing" will no doubt broaden the community of Chouinard's admirers, but its tone may lead others to say, "Yes, we know he's a principled chap, but could he just tone it down?"


Michael Hiltzik writes the Golden State column for The Times Business section.

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