Responsible Business Lessons From Patagonia’s Yvon Chouinard

Before the recent global interest in green companies and corporate social responsibility (CSR), there is already a sustainable company called Patagonia. Yvon Chouinard, the founder and owner of Patagonia, Inc. based in California, is one of the few business leaders who understand that if your business is not part of the answer, then your business is part of the problem.

The story of Yvon Chouinard and Patagonia is best told in his 2005 biography, “Let my people go surfing: the education of a reluctant businessman.” In his book, Yvon shared that he was an avid climber from young and spent much of his time climbing the mountains with his friends. He started to teach himself blacksmithing in 1957 so that he could make his own climbing hardware. His friends liked the gear and requested for them, then friends of friends wanted some too, and so he started selling new gear. In the 1970s, he started selling clothing suitable for climbing. Today, Patagonia earns more than US$230 million a year selling outdoor clothing and gear, and is one of the most environmentally responsible company in the world.

Through his climbs and travels, Yvon saw rapid degradation of the environment and thus is committed to protecting the environment. In fact, Patagonia try to live up to its mission statement: Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis. Yvon describes his company as an experiment:

It exists to put into action those recommendations that all the doomsday books on the health of our home planet say we must do immediately to avoid the certain destruction of nature and collapse of our civilization. Despite near-universal consensus among scientists that we are on the brink of an environmental collapse, our society lacks the will to take action. We’re collectively paralyzed by apathy, inertia, or lack of imagination. Patagonia exists to challenge conventional wisdom and present a new style of responsible business. We believe the accepted model of capitalism that necessitates endless growth and deserves the blame for the destruction of nature must be displaced. Patagonia and its thousand employees have the means and the will to prove to the rest of the business world that doing the right thing makes for good and profitable business.

Patagonia follow philosophies or guidelines that apply to different parts of the company. These philosophies are an expression of the company’s values, and are communicated to all employees so that they are empowered with the knowledge of the right course to take, without following a rigid plan or wait for orders. Some philosophies include:

Product Design Philosophy

  • Is it functional?
  • is it multifunctional?
  • Is it durable?
  • Does it fit our customer?
  • Is it as simple as possible?
  • Is the product line simple?
  • Is it an innovation or an invention?
  • Is it a global design?
  • Is it easy to care for and clean?
  • Does it have any added value?
  • Is it authentic?
  • Is it art?
  • Are we just chasing fashion?
  • Are we designing for our core customer?
  • Have we done our homework?
  • Is it timely?
  • Does it cause any unnecessary harm?

Production Philosophy

  • Involve the designer with the producer
  • Develop long-term relationships with suppliers and contractors
  • Weigh quality first, against on-time delivery and low cost
  • Go for it, but do your homework
  • Measure twice, cut once
  • Borrow ideas from other disciplines

Environmental Philosophy

  • Lead an examined life
  • Clean up our own act
  • Do our penance
  • Support civil democracy
  • Influence other companies

Find out more about Patagonia’s environmental initiatives here. In 2001, Yvon also co-founded 1% for the Planet, an alliance of businesses that contribute at least 1% of their net annual sales to approved environmental organisations.

More companies in Singapore are embracing CSR and they could learn some lessons from one of the earliest socially and environmentally responsible company and business leader. Yvon Chouinard and Patagonia are role models but as Yvon humbly concludes:

Patagonia will never be completely socially responsible. It will never make a totally sustainable nondamaging product. But it is committed to trying.

Image: Screenshot of Patagonia Environmental Initiatives 2010

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