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Monday, February 27, 2023

Review: Let My People Go Surfing

 I was intrigued by the Chouinard's family decision to roll all their holdings in Patagonia into a company that's dedicated to preserving the environment. Not only did they do so, they did so in such a way that the company is free to participate in political causes, which is one of the highest leverage activity anyone who wants to change the world can do.

I picked up Let My People Go Surfing to get an idea of the man behind Patagonia. I enjoyed the opening stories about how he ended up making climbing equipment and selling it in a low volume business before setting up a company. I thought it very sad that he got out of making climbing equipment (after pioneering non-destructive climbing tools) because he was getting sued by people who were not using the equipment properly or using it for purposes that were unintended. The pivot into full time clothing manufacturing seems wrong to me, though obviously from a business point of view it absolutely makes sense --- there will always be more people wearing Patagonia down jacket to go to the mall than people wearing the same jacket while backcountry camping --- Chouinard admits as much.

I loved the philosophy Chouinard espouses --- in many ways Patagonia is the anti-Apple. While Apple would build computers with soldered RAM, glued-in batteries, and work as hard as possible to make its computers and phones non-repairable, Patagonia would encourage its customers not to buy new jackets but to repair it and hang on to it for longer. I love it. In fact, Chouinard goes out of his way to indict manufacturers who void warranties on products where customers dare to attempt repair. Of course, given the difference between the market caps of Apple and Patagonia Chouinard is probably tilting at windmills, but the environmentalist in me appreciates his attempt.

Much of the book covers the approach to clothing and how Patagonia operates. After reading this book I now understand why the Patagonia Messenger Bag is so awful. It's quite clear that Chouinard doesn't ride a bike seriously, nor does he employ someone who rides a lot. As a result there are all sorts of decisions (such as the bag not just being water-leaky, but designed in such a way that rain is directed into the laptop compartment!) that Patagonia probably would never do on their mountaineering or backpacking equipment. (Not having ever owned a Patagonia waterproof piece of clothing, I'm can't say that in confidence --- it may be that Patagonia waterproof jackets are just as leaky as their bicycle messenger bags)

The rest of the book is pretty good, with interesting material on organic farming methods and how much that can help as far as carbon sequestration is concerned. Chouinard is indeed quite pessimistic about how the human race will handle the climate crisis, but that's not news to you --- I'm pessimistic as well:

The difficulty of convincing people to act is evident from walking through Patagonia’s own parking lots and offices. SUVs are studded all over the lot, and people are wearing jeans and shirts made from nonsustainable fibers grown with toxic chemicals. Even here, where everyone knows how bad all this stuff is, environmental values are a hard sell. One hopes that the kids coming out of our child-care center will do better. (kindle loc 3249)

I loved the section of the book about how he dealt with the protestors who were picketing Patagonia for donating to planned parenthood:

 Despite receiving thousands of letters from people saying they would never again buy our products, we coordinated a unified response from all the targeted companies—every one much larger than Patagonia. When we were threatened by the CAC with groups picketing our stores, we relied on a strategy called Pledge-a-Picket. We said that we would reward every picketer who showed up at one of our stores by donating ten dollars to Planned Parenthood in his or her name. They chose to stay away, and the boycott collapsed. We were described in the New York Times as “courageous,” and we then received thousands of letters from Planned Parenthood supporters. (kindle loc 3389)

Clearly unlike many businessmen who claim to be principled environmentalists Mr. Chouinard clearly can walk the walk as well as talking the talk. I learned a surprising amount from this book, and most of it wasn't corporate propaganda or self-congratulatory entrepreneur memoir-speak. It's worth reading! 

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