Yoga and The Business of Life
Book Review: Let My People Go Surfing
BY MAGAZINE EDITOR SUSAN MAIER-MOUL
My company, Patagonia, Inc., is 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 the conventional wisdom and present a new style of responsible business.
Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia, was just a year out of high school when he began forging his own equipment for climbing the rock faces of Yosemite. By that time he was already well experienced in fly fishing, box car riding and falconry, and was working as a private eye for Howard Hughes.
Chouinard’s youth is from another time, and it’s a spectacular mix of vagabond and genius. The company he founded eventually grew as fast as the wild world he loved was paved over, polluted and used up.
The concept of sat guru in yoga is the searing truth of one’s situation. Patagonia and the education of a reluctant businessman turn on an unsettling question posed by a small, squeaky oracle in a captain’s cap and epaulets. His question changes a company from marketable to trail blazing, and the course of a man’s destiny from retreat to leadership.
Let My People Go Surfing is the story of how each of us convinces ourselves of all the wrong things and the story of how to find our truth.
Is it really enough to just make money?
Forward-looking Patagonia had on site day care and corporate recycling when such programs were still cutting edge. As its history bobs and weaves through lawsuits and fabric innovation it seems we are reading about the company we know today, but we aren’t, yet.
Less than half way through the book the ground runs out beneath Patagonia as it struggles with rapid growth and expansion.
“The company was restructured five times in five years,” writes Chouinard, “and no plan worked better than the last one.”
Chouinard, his wife and their CEO and CFO meet with a top business coach for advice. The business counselor wants to know why Chouinard is in business in the first place.
I told him I’d always had a dream that when I had enough money, I’d sail off to the South Seas looking for the perfect wave and the ultimate bonefish flat.
We told him the reason we hadn’t sold out and retired was that we were pessimistic abut the fate of the world and felt a responsibility to do something about it. We told him about our tithing program, how we had given away a million dollars just in the past year to over two hundred organizations and that our bottom-line reason for staying in the business was to make money we could give away.
Dr. Kami thought for awhile and then said, “I think that’s bullshit.”
Kami’s question is a turning point for Chouinard, but it takes him a while to wake up to its full significance. Bewildered, he heads back into the storm as the country enters a recession and Patgonia’s years of 30-50% growth are suddenly over. When he has to lay off 20% of their workforce, Chouinard comes to see he has to stop being the guy who owns the company and start being the guy who leads.
The status quo is a poor excuse for doing nothing
Writers sometimes talk about writing the characters they couldn’t find, writing the books they were looking for and which did not exist. Of all the reasons for creating something, the one that’s most compelling is making something that doesn’t exist in order to meet our own needs.
Chouinard finds his dharma unpalatable. “Business has to take the majority of the blame for being the enemy of nature, for destroying native cultures, for taking from the poor and giving to the rich, and for poisoning the earth with the effluent from its factories.”
Kami’s question transforms Chouinard’s dystopic vision of commerce into one of enormous energy and clarity. The significant thing is this: he sees that the problems of the world aren’t going to be cleaned up by someone else.
Business can produce food, cure disease, control population, employ people, and generally enrich our lives. And it can do these good things and make a profit without losing its soul.
When Chouinard makes the decision to do something instead of nothing, he recognizes that business is just another tool. Tools, making and using tools, are what Chouinard’s entire life has been about.
Action that turns profit into purpose
The man who began his career making the equipment he wanted and could not find, becomes a leader who sees how to make a business work the way he once made a forge work. If he can make the best carabiner in the world with his own two hands, he understands, he can also make the best business in the world from his personal values.
“I realized that our crisis was just a microcosm of what was going on all over the world.” Chouinard becomes aware he can create something even more valuable than a great product, he can make a successful, ethical company.
I knew, after thirty-five years, why I was in business. True, I wanted to give money to environmental causes. But even more, I wanted to create in Patagonia a model other businesses could look to in their own searches for environmental stewardship and sustainability.
The economic engine of Patagonia is devoted to becoming the company Chouinard set out to create. In 1994, Patagonia began doing environmental assessment reports on its own products. Upon discovering that one of their most important fibers, cotton, was also one of the most environmentally damaging, Patagonia has poured formidable resources into creating a viable market for organically grown cotton.
Blazing a trail to corporate higher truth and sustainability
Jen Rapp, who works in media relations for Patagonia, expresses the company’s determination to behave with integrity.
We’re the first company in the world to be so transparent about our processes; and we’re very frank about both the good and the bad. We continue to use only organic cotton, as we have since 1996 – and this Spring 90% of our line is totally recyclable through our Common Threads Recycling Program.
Consumers can learn the mind bending environmental economics of the clothes we wear in Patagonia’s multimedia consumer education project The Footprint Chronicles. A single Simply Organic Cotton Polo Shirt generates 14 lbs of CO2 emissions or 41 times the weight of the shirt. Imagine what this number is for a standard industrially produced cotton shirt.
Coming to grips with the environmental impact of what we own wards off the relentless seduction of new things. Patagonia’s transparent processes demonstrate we can’t just recycle our way out of the current crisis, we must to raise our awareness and check our rate of consumption.
The business of life is the business of yoga. Instructing his students in the power of tantra, Lama Yeshe describes the important difference between a focus on transcendence and the practice of presence that is based in immanence.
Instead of viewing pleasure and desire as something to be avoided at all costs, tantra recognizes the powerful energy aroused by our desires to be an indispensable resource for the spiritual path. Because the goal of yoga is nothing less than the realization of our highest human potential, tantra seeks to transform every experience – no matte how ‘unreligious’ it may appear – into the path of fulfillment. Lama Yeshe, 87/20.
In this sense, Yvon Chouinard and his company are the most sincere of tantric practitioners. The “powerful energy aroused” by their engagement in outdoor sport feeds their sense of purpose. Their love and faith bind them to their path as one of agency, accountability and direct intervention.
Patagonia’s Methodology for environmental cost calculations.
The Footprint Chronicles on Patagonia’s website is a convincing multimedia treasure trove showing the path our clothes take from their design to our backs, and the many people who touch them in between.
Yeshe, Lama Thubten. Introduction to Tantra: A Vision of Totality.
Somerville, Massachusetts: Wisdom Publications, 1987.
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© 2011, The Magazine of Yoga, LLC.