The Responsible Company

Just finished reading The Responsible Company, the second business book by Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia. His first, Let My People Surfing, laid out Chouinard’s personal path and the company’s history before spending the bulk of the book on the business philosophy of the small (roughly $400M) outdoor gear and apparel company. This second book establishes Chouinard’s voice and leadership in the new sustainable business movement—though he and co-author Vincent Stanley are quick to point out there’s no such thing as a truly ‘sustainable’ business.

If you’re thinking about starting something—or re-orienting your existing something—towards what matters to you, this book belongs on the stack on your desk. It’s a perfectly-timed counterbalance to the Jobs biography.

The Jobs book has had the unfortunate effect of sending millions of corporate honchos in search of their inner asshole. There is nothing wrong with more boldly pursuing your dream, but what is that dream? Chouinard’s, on the other hand, inspires you to think about, and pursue, what matters to you. And to pursue it responsibly. The message is of self-awareness, of building a company whose operations incorporate “the true cost—human, ecological, economic—of everything we make.” If Jobs has come to represent how to lead, Chouinard steps in to represent why. 

Truth be told, I’ve had a long love-hate relationship with Patagonia. When I was a dirtbag, spending my summers in Desolation Wilderness, I lusted after Patagonia’s gear and clothing. By the time I could afford them, by working for a living, I no longer needed them.

But the book isn’t about the clothes, it’s about the sense of responsibility—and the idea that founders can build small companies that make a big difference or, at the very least, allow the founders to surround themselves with great people and great experiences. Looking at both of Chouinard’s books, it feels like he is thinking hard about his legacy these days. The organization’s personality still reflects his own, not yet having formed its own soul, and these books go a long way to building the organization's soul, within and without.

What Chouinard and company have done to make Patagonia responsible is something we should all strive for. And as role models go, Chouinard ranks up there with Jobs. As with each of our heroes, our job is to cull the best aspects (and leave the rest). After all, getting in touch with our inner a–hole may not prove so useful or rewarding without embracing our responsibility to community and environment.

The sustainability movement is pretty moralistic these days, and changing the world seems to require monumental efforts. Voltaire ends Candide with the hero and his friends giving up on their efforts to make sense of and change the larger world, recognizing instead that “we must cultivate our own garden.” Pursuing the more grounded and local experience of building a business, and making a livelihood for yourself and others, is not abdicating your responsibility to change the world. It does change the world. And who knows, it may have far-reaching effects.  As Chouinard is showing us at the end of his career, it may be one of the few ways to do so with soul.