top of page

Conscious Book Club Reflections & Takeaways: Book 2 "Let My People Go Surfing."

Two Words: Problem Solving. I had an Entrepreneurship professor in college who always said, "entrepreneurship is solving a problem and gaining profits from your solution." To me the underlying theme of "Let My People Go Surfing," an autobiography of the apparel company Patagonia, by Yvon Chouinard, is problem solving.

Now, before I started reading this book, I expected it to be more of a motivational branding book? In the end, it was the story of an outdoor enthusiast who had an itch for adventure, a knack for problem solving and the genuine belief that business can do good things, and make a profit without losing its soul. Honestly, you could stop reading here and you would get the gist of it; but, there is much left to be discussed about what dawns the pages of this manual that attempts to break down business as we know it and the culture of consumption.

For time's sake, I have divided my summary of the book into three overall categories; first, interesting facts on the story of patagonia, second, a focus of each philosophy adopted inside of Patagonia and lastly my takeaways and simple applications.

1 || The Story

The birth of Patagonia really came about from the perfect recipe of hard work, a rebellious spirit and problem solving. At the very beginning of the book Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia, shares a thought he had early in his childhood: "it's better to invent your own game; then you can always be a winner." It is exactly this spirit that led him to his first business venture in 1957, Chouinard Equipment. A hand made, state-of-the-art, climbing equipment venture based out of the trunk of his car at the base of whatever peak he was about to climb. From his very first climbing pitons to the now thriving outdoor retail company of Patagonia, Chouinard always had the focus of making high quality pieces that left little to no mark on nature.

You climb the mountains or visit the wilderness, but leave no trace of having been there. pg 10

As he traveled the world to climb, surf and ski, he took note of the gaps that existed in product offerings for active sportswear, especially those which did not have a market inside of the United States yet. He was always open to new ideas, ready to execute them in a way that didn't compromise his values and was willing to learn from the mistakes. The same process and mindset for his climbing equipment translated into the genesis of the apparel manufacturing that began in 1970. What started it all? A brightly colored, regulation team rugby jersey. He started climbing in it and everyone wanted one, so he found sourcing and thus began the apparel company that we all now know as, Patagonia.

From then on each piece that went through production at Patagonia aimed to aid the active and outdoor sport community by solving problems that other apparel manufacturers weren't. There were so many more failures, hard decisions and even bankruptcies that occured in the following years of Patagonia that truly shocked me to learn. In these moments, Yvon operated instinctively as a business man, keeping the company afloat and assessing supply and demand all while consulting the mission of aiming to "leave little to no trace," behind. As the company started to grow, he knew philosophies needed to be established to maintain a course of success and achieve this mission. On page sixty six of the book, he spoke of a true turning point that led him to building these philosophies,

"Doing risk sports had taught me another important lesson: Never exceed your limits. You push the envelope, and you live for those moments when you're right on the edge, but you don't go over. You have to be true to yourself; you have to know your strengths and limitations and live within your means. The same is true for business. The soon a company tries to be what it is not, the sooner it tries to "have it all," it will die. It was time to apply a bit of philosophy to our business."

2 || The Philosophies

Product design, production, distribution, marketing, finance, human resources, management and environmental. These are the areas Yvon designated particular philosophies to keep Patagonia focused. As I went through each section I realized the initial philosophies are mostly standard in the business world. As I continued, Yvon's title of "an anti-businessman business man," started to become more understandable and what could have been boring elements to read actually became my favorite and were inspirational to say the least.

Product Design:

Is it functional, durable, repairable, simple, easy to care for, authentic, beautiful? Does it fit our customer, chase fashion, cause unnecessary harm? These are the questions consulted during the design phase of products for Patagonia. What is interesting is the correlation their design

philosophy has to that of the first book we read, "Circular Design for Fashion." Clothing should be designed with the goal of its life after the customer has purchased it in mind. This contrasts with our current model of the goal of design being to sell the item quickly and make as much profit for the company as possible.


Some tips of production are to involve the designer with the producer, develop long term relationships with suppliers and contractors, weigh quality first, measure twice & cut once and

choose fair trade. The production phase is where most of the environmental and social harm comes from. With innovative ideation and the right partnerships, Patagonia has accomplished some of the most sustainable production of fabrics, dyeing, sewing and even post production clean up, that exist in the fashion industry today. This has come through much trial and error, leaning into trustworthy partnerships and always having quality at the forefront of the design process.


To avoid boring you with all the details of Patagonia's distribution, I will make this one short and sweet. The focus for Chouinard was to always ensure customer satisfaction in distribution. Using mail catalog, ecommerce, retail and wholesale the customer always has a way to access the product. The retail section in particular was very fascinating to me. Ensuring Patagonia stores are always staffed with highly knowledgeable outdoor, extreme sport individuals, allows for the assurance that the customer can trust an expert opinion when accessing gear from the company. The other element of retail I found fascinating was Patagonia's focus on always refurbishing old buildings instead of building new, if they can help it. As well as, their prioritization of honoring the existing design and structure of the building keeping its character true to the surrounding location. These thoughtful touches keep the genuine personality of Patagonia alive and the products approachable no matter where they are.

Patagonia in Old Town Alexandria, Va.


While there are practical and namable aspects to the image of Patagonia, Yvon states that it "can't be made into a formula, because the image relies on authenticity, a formula would destroy it." The focus of their marketing efforts is the human voice. It is not processed; it won't compromise its humanity. When looking at photos, story telling, videography, social media, copy, promotion and branding, their main focus was to show their product in action, candidly. They used real life photos of customers using their products in action. If you think about it, it really is one of the first examples of experiential, influencer marketing that existed. They also focused on emphasizing transparency when it came to the fact that every item made causes environmental harm; encouraging people to buy better and to buy less. You may remember their Black Friday Ad that redefined marketing stating "don't buy this jacket. This is where many consider Chouinard an "anti-businessman businessman." The extreme transparency and honesty of their goal is so foreign that it works. They aim to inspire and educate rather than to promote, to earn credibility and to deepen and simplify the lives of their customers.


This section is truly where Chouinard's "anti-businessman businessman" character exposes itself and I loved every minute of reading it. I felt so known in the way that I feel about growing a company. He & the other founders decided to make their mission statement say nothing about profit.

"our family considers our bottom line to be the amount of good that the business has accomplished over the year... however, we do consider profit to be a vote of confidence, that our customers approve of what we are doing."

I mean what a perspective to have! One, this has to alleviate some pressure that entrepreneurship holds when it comes to sales and the financial state of your company. Two, it truly redirects the company's focus back to a goal of doing better by the world and walking the walk, not just talking the talk and maybe one day, when the timing is better, focusing on sustainability.

Human Resources:

For this philosophy being developed in the early 90's, it is way ahead of its time. The title of the book "Let My People Go Surfing" is essentially the backbone behind the human resources philosophy. Chouinard believes in allowing his employees the flexibility of catching the best

waves, fly fishing at the best time of day and finally climbing that peak on your list that you've been working toward for years. That is how he was in the early days of Chouinard Equipment and that is something he wanted to carry within the ethos of the company. A work life balance. After he married, he and his wife realized the need for not just average, but excellent child care on site, to aid working moms and families and to inspire a sense of family at Patagonia. They have one of the best on-site child care facilities in the country and when it started it was only 1 of 120 in the USA. This concept that, to this day, is still having a rough journey to execution in major companies, seemed normal and right to incorporate in the company culture of Patagonia and, I think, keep it humble and relatable to so many as a result.


What I believe, and I am sure you do too, as the most important philosophy Patagonia developed is the Environmental Philosophy. The genuine and brutally honest perspective that Yvon has is that, "there are only a few examples of truly sustainable economic endeavors that can be done in a way other than a microscale." Patagonia is very transparent about the idea that buying any new clothes and creating them at this scale is inherently, down to its core, not sustainable. This is why their focus is, instead of profits, action. They are one of the only companies in the world to carry as many sustainable fabrics and business certifications as an apparel company. Aside from that, they believe in seeing change through action when it comes to the environment. Petitioning, protesting, choosing different suppliers, donating finances to environmental programs that are doing the work, and getting their hands dirty.

"At Patagonia the protection and preservation of the natural environment aren't just something we do do after hours or when we finish our regular work; they're the reason we are in business... I believe, as do most of our employees, that the health of our home planet is the bottom line, and it's a responsibility we all must share.

3 || The Takeaways

Sometimes we only see the final results of someone else's life work and compare our path to theirs without realizing the journey they have been on. Chouinard was so transparent and genuine about the struggles of the 50 years of building Patagonia and part of it was defeating, I won't lie. However, the other part encouraged me to always be curious rather than cut down. To pivot and be open to change.

I take away with me a stronger internal voice. Permission to stop and think, to be stubborn about the way things should be done and not just talk the talk, but walk the walk. I don't know about you but it can be easy for me to follow a path that is well travelled, but creating more sustainable solutions for our planet, and its people, requires forging new paths. It may be scary, but if I wait to leave it to the next person, it may never be done. Why not me? Why not now? Why not you? Why not today?

Thanks for joining me in reading book number two in our "Conscious Book Club 2022." I hope you will join us in book number three, "Beginners Pluck," by Liz Bohannon. If you want to check out the entire list you can see it here, as well as my synopsis on Book Number One. I see you working to educate yourself and learn about all the ways you can create a brighter, more sustainable future and I am so glad you are here!

Cheers to you,

Kara Jo

61 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page