Let My People Go Surfing Summary and Review

by Yvon Chouinard

Has Let My People Go Surfing by Yvon Chouinard been sitting on your reading list? Pick up the key ideas in the book with this quick summary.

Do you know much about the company Patagonia? Chances are, if you’re a climber or the outdoorsy type, you will own some of their products, whether its a windbreaker, backpack or a hat. But do you know more about the company beyond the products they make? Patagonia are at the forefront of environmental protection, they have a great company culture and are global leaders when it comes to honest marketing. They are one of the most progressive countries in the world. n these snippets you will be taken through the history of Patagonia and its groundbreaking company philosophy.

In this summary of Let My People Go Surfing by Yvon Chouinard,You’ll also learn:

  • why Patagonia stopped selling its most popular product;
  • how staff hours are subject to change according to surfing conditions; and
  • how the company’s advice has helped millions of people stay warm.

Let My People Go Surfing Key Idea #1: Chouinard took his love for nature and climbing and started his own company.

It is very likely that you have shopped for outdoor items at Patagonia for years without knowing who Yvon Chouinard is. But, if you want to know how Patagonia managed to become one of the world’s most successful companies then it will start with Yvon Chouinard. The story begins in Maine, where Chouinard was born in 1938 to a French-Canadian family. When his family who was French-speaking moved across the continent to California, he felt like an outsider and took comfort in mountain climbing. His interest in climbing was intensified from then on after he had graduated from college, he learned how to work as a blacksmith so he could make his own climbing equipment. Most of the gear came from European countries that took a different approach to mountaineering than what Chouinard was looking for, so he wasn’t happy. They designed the equipment to help you conquer a mountain as if it was a battle of humanity versus nature, but these often damaged the environment. Once he had learned to make his own climbing equipment, he was selling it to others, quickly expanding his business. Even though his tools were expensive, his radical redesign of climbing equipment was very appealing to his fellow outdoorsy types: he simplified standard equipment while at the same time making it lighter, stronger and more functional. At first, there wasn’t much profit, but Chouinard was only interested in earning enough to be able to continue climbing, fishing and surfing. But, eventually, he managed to be able to hire some friends as employees and bring in just enough money to continuously improve the products that they were selling. In 1970, all of his work paid off and Chouinard Equipment became the largest climbing hardware supplier in the US. But, improvements still needed to be made. When he was climbing, he noticed that pitons were left dug into the sides of mountains all over. He decided that the company would phase out pitons, even though they were the most popular product, and only produce aluminum chocks, as this kept with his philosophy of putting nature first. Removing a high selling product is a drastic move, which could end the company, but Chouinard was only just beginning.

Let My People Go Surfing Key Idea #2: Chouinard had to become a businessman to repair and grow the company.

Selling climbing tools is quite a niche market, as mountain climbing isn’t everyone's greatest passion.  But bearing this in mind, Chouinard knew he needed to expand. In order to run alongside the marginal profits of the climbing business, Chouinard decided he would start a new company selling outdoor apparel and gave it the name: Patagonia. But his principles remained the same. Much like the climbing business, Patagonia’s clothes were made to be simple, strong, well designed and very functional. This company got off to a turbulent start, the first product, which was a Rugby Shirt, arrived cheaply made and behind schedule. Because no one was interested in buying these products, the company had to cut its losses and sell them below cost, which then put Patagonia in trouble right from the outset. Looking for a way out of this, the company considered a loan from a very questionable source who asked for 28 percent interest. Thankfully, Chouinard and his colleagues managed to put together enough money so that they didn’t have to resort to these drastic measures. This situation opened Chouinard’s eyes and he realized that in order to make his business succeed, Chouinard would have to become a legitimate businessman. He had previously considered himself just a surfer or a climber, and not a businessman, but this is what his growing enterprise was lacking: a leader to run and strategize the business. This is just what he did, he stepped up and stabilized Patagonia so that he could earn a profit. He did this in a way that reminded him of his true self, making sure that the staff enjoyed their work and that it didn't become stale and boring. This also resulted in him offering new and innovative products, for example, their groundbreaking functional apparel. It was the first company of its kind that promoted wearing layers of different clothing as a barrier to the cold. As well as its high-quality clothing, they were also able to offer advice that led to the company being trusted by its customers and they were envied by others in the industry. They also revolutionized the outdoor apparel industry as they combine vibrant colors and new materials with the type of clothing that had a history of being boring and drab.

Let My People Go Surfing Key Idea #3: Quick Expansion resulted in a refocus on Chouinard’s environmental concerns.

There was something that needed to be addressed with Patagonia’s rapid expansion. This was the fact the business was built on a contradiction, it strove to be different but wanted to grow like other businesses. This was apparent in the trouble that was caused by its rapid expansion. As this initial focus was just on expansion, it meant that new staff were being brought on board without being properly trained, and things began to fall apart. Not the least of Patagonia’s problems was the fact that it had to fire 20 percent of its staff, while the tool division, Chouinard Equipment, was forced to file for bankruptcy. All of these incidents lead to Patagonia reprioritizing, they were to look beyond growth and profits and they had to come up with a business philosophy, as well as a code of ethics. They would now look for ‘organic’ ways in which they could grow, while also focus on sustainable growth and the long term vision, rather than short-term profits. Chouinard also wanted to focus more on his commitments to the environment. Chouinard was even more concerned with the environment in the 1980s and the company joined its first grassroots cause, backing a project in order to protect the Ventura River. When he was testing the products, he saw first hand that the river was in danger of vanishing due to damming, which left local species of fish without any breeding grounds. From this moment onwards, Patagonia was to continue to do its part in order to protect the environment. Every year since 1986, the company has donated one percent of all sales or ten percent of profits, depending on which is more, to an environmental cause. This philosophy even extended to its catalog, which was one of the first anywhere to be printed entirely on recycled paper.We will now take a look at how Patagonia’s philosophy has developed over time.

Let My People Go Surfing Key Idea #4: Their philosophy was reflected in every part of Patagonia’s business and marketing.

Patagonia, as a business, core values have become a huge part of its philosophy and even though these are expressed in writing, they remain flexible and act as a clear set of guidelines. Their guiding philosophy allows everyone, including their employees and the public to stay on the same page when it comes to the companies key ideas and the path that it wants to go along. The idea that is central behind this philosophy is that the products are cared for with the same respect that you would give to another human. It doesn’t make goods that are disposable and that are intended for blind consumption, but they serve a valuable function and aren’t the type of things that should be bought and sold just for the sake of consumerism. The emphasis on value is reinforced during the marketing of the products and this reminds consumers that Patagonia’s products serve a real purpose and that they are made and sold by passionate people. This message is conveyed in marketing that is heavily focused on photos of people putting the products to use, which highlights their functionality. Naturally, these images also highlight how people can use the products in harmony with the great outdoors. These ideologies form an integral part of Patagonia’s “bible” and this is what the company calls its catalog. This is not only used to showcase and sell its products, but it is an opportunity to put Patagonia’s values on display and share valuable information and tips for outdoor enthusiasts and climbers. The catalog is actually where the company started to promote the idea that people should wear more layers for warmth in colder climates and they sought carefully to assure customers that this wasn't a ploy to sell more clothes. Any person who is in marketing knows that it is a challenge to sell things that do not have any really value. This is why Patagonia aims to be at the forefront of innovation and ensures that they make unique products that are easy to market in an honest way without embellishment.

Let My People Go Surfing Key Idea #5: Patagonia’s products are functional, environmentally friendly and durable.

Patagonia’s philosophy was extended to its product design, as expected, this is a central focus of the company. Every product that they make, Patagonia aims to make it the best of its kind. The products get tested and designed with close attention being paid to the product areas that make them durable and also more importantly, authentic. There are a variety of ways that Patagonia achieves their authenticity, but there are two particular facets that define the company. The first of Patagonia’s products that was designed to be multifunctional and it was because of this reason that climbers can’t carry much weight. So it is in their best interests to have tools that can perform more than one function at a time. They had this in mind when they designed a backpack that was an instrument for carrying things, sleeping on or dragging water from a stream. The second thing that Patagonia have in mind is a product's durability. The company doesn’t just focus on making endless variations of different backpacks but designing one that can last a lifetime. It is less harmful to the planet when someone can use their equipment for a long time. Another important part of Patagonia’s design philosophy is not causing any harm but also finding ways to add value. Patagonia's ideal item of clothing would be something that was durable, ecologically friendly but also authentic. It would need to be easily identified as being from Patagonia without the consumer having to check the label. This isn’t always easy, especially not harming the environment. As a company, Patagonia isn’t always looking for ways to be more ecologically friendly: in the 1990s, the company found that so-called “100 percent cotton” actually included 30 percent of synthetic products. This discovery then leads to Patagonia becoming one of the first multinational companies that insisted on using more organic cotton. In the beginning, this was difficult as organic cotton that met these standards and durability was hard to come across, but Patagonia worked with suppliers in order to try and find a solution.

Let My People Go Surfing Key Idea #6: Patagonia treats their management and staff with respect and trust.

As well as having well designed and durable products, Patagonia has also become famous for the way in which they manage and treat their employees. This is another legacy that is rooted in foundational principles. In the beginning, Patagonia comprised of Chouinard’s friends, climbers or surfers. This has changed over the years, but the goal of Patagonia’s HR department is still to have the majority of its employees also be customers. This again is another winning philosophy by them: great products that derive from people who are passionate about them. It is also a lot easier to teach people who are outdoor enthusiasts about business than it is to teach a business person about being passionate about the outdoors. As a company, they seek out people who enjoy camping, surfing or climbing. Hiring passionate people is just the beginning, for employees to put that passion into their work they must be treated with respect. It’s for this reason that the Patagonia human resources departments motto is “let them go surfing.” This refers to their flexible work schedule which allows employees to go surfing when the waves are right, and not when a fixed schedule allows. This then links with the health care and onsite childcare that they offer, allowing for a harmonious family dynamic and a proper work life balance. There are also key values that apply to upper management as well. As a company, they don’t want their employees to be coerced by managers, or to feel that they can’t speak out and question any authority. Instead, they want to seek leaders who inspire team members rather than telling them what to do. They want leaders who lead by example and who are visionaries. They will look to create long-term goals and stick to them while looking for new developments. In this, there is a bond of trust that rests between the employees and managers who can rely on each other to do the right thing. They wouldn’t be Patagonia without this environmental policy and we will see this in the last book summary.

Let My People Go Surfing Key Idea #7: As a brand, they haven’t stopped caring about the planet’s well-being and the impact of their products.

In the earlier summary, it was shown how tool, clothing design and consistent donations show that the environment is at the heart of Patagonia’s philosophy and their management. Patagonia cares deeply about the impact its products leave on our planet. As a company, Patagonia relies heavily on natural resources, as with most companies that create physical goods - but they also ensure they treat these with the utmost respect. It is because of this that the company regularly examines and reexamines their business practices. Even if the company is working well, they are never content and are constantly looking for ways in which they can improve. The most important on this list of improvements is whether or not a current product or policy is beneficial to the environment in the long term. It is for this reason that Patagonia phased out the climbing pitons that were mentioned in the first summary of this book. Although they were made to be an eco-friendly product, consumers were leaving them embedded in the mountainside. Chouinard even had to reconsider his company’s actions and this is something that Patagonia continuously does today when they detect an environmentally damaging product or practice, they focus on repairing in any way possible. As a company, they take a holistic approach to all their concerns and look at the symptoms and the cause of environmental damage. For example, Patagonia provides donations to Planned Parenthood, since one of the leading environmental threats in the world today is overpopulation. This is a genuine concern for the environment and it is apparent throughout the entire business, from its products and catalog to the reusable cups that are used in the company cafeterias. From the beginning, Patagonia as continuously worked to find ways for people to enjoy the gifts that nature provides but still making sure that the same gifts will be available to the future generations.

Let My People Go Surfing Key Idea #8: Let my People Go Surfing Book Summary

Key Message: Not all businesses have to be focused just on consumption and growth. Patagonia has created and developed a philosophy that has meant that they can create superior products, but not damage the environment or selling its soul to corporate greed. They stand as a winner for any person who is willing to do things honorably, but who still wants to earn a profit.