Five learnings from Yvon Chouinard, founder and owner of Patagonia

October 25, 2021

At Symplicity Designs and Sympli Works, we are big fans of Patagonia, Inc., a world-renowned outdoor clothing company. Patagonia is more than environmentally conscious; Patagonia’s mission is to “make the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, and use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.” How’s that for a clear, defined vision? 

The business’s history stems from Chouinard Equipment, a blacksmithing company for climbers that began in the 1950s. It was in climbing that Chouinard and his senior team realized that the business was becoming an environmental villain by the early 1970s. A staple of their business was producing hard steel pitons, a metal spike that is driven into a crack or seam in the rock with a hammer, which acts as an anchor for the climber’s safety. But constant hammering of these into fragile cracks in rocks commonly climbed was disfiguring the very rocks that Chouinard and his friends loved to climb. Consequently, Chouinard Equipment led significant cultural change in the climbing world, encouraging climbers to climb clean, using only nuts and runners for protection to preserve the fragile rock faces. When Chouinard co-founded the outdoor clothing company Patagonia the environmental imperative followed suit. 

Chouinard wrote a book on his unique management philosophy, Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman. This book offers a number of fascinating learnings which include, but are not limited to, the following:

  1. Aim for ‘80 per cent goals’ rather than perfect. Chouinard is the type of person who likes to become 80 per cent proficient at something and then drop that to do something different. Perfect is the enemy of improvement. One needs to always measure progress against something better, but this should not stand in the way of moving on to something else that will provide a greater level of improvement.
  2. The importance of good process to accomplish goals. Chouinard uses Zen archery to make this point. One should forget about hitting the goal and focus instead on the process of shooting the arrow, which includes one’s stance, movements as the arrow is pulled from the quiver, notching the arrow, controlling one’s breathing and letting go of the arrow. “If you’ve perfected all the elements,” Chouinard notes, “you can’t help but hit the centre of the target.”  
  3. Best product and absolute quality are tangible goals. Quality was of prime importance to Chouinard Equipment (and Patagonia) since its employees were users of the climbing equipment that the company produced. Chouinard points out that quality is objective, not subjective. It is not a function of taste, but rather a function of the value inherent in any product or service. Italian shirts may be some of the nicest in the world, but having to dry clean these shirts diminishes their value. As such, Patagonia’s design philosophy consists of a checklist of criteria that any product must qualify for before that product goes to market. 
  4. The importance of systems thinking in business. Chouinard thinks about his company, its vendors, and customers as an ecosystem. If one area of the business has a problem it affects the whole. He understands that if one department of Patagonia were to be drastically altered he had better consider the effects on the rest of the company or chaos is the likely result.

The importance of determining root causes. Why did winter clothing sales in Japan in November and December 2003 do poorly? It turns out the answer was unseasonably warm temperatures in these months and the products were retained and sold full price in early 2004 when cooler weather returned. Constantly asking why until one gets to the root cause of the problem is an essential tool for all organizations.