Marketing Lessons From Patagonia: Review of Let My People Go Surfing

The following article is a guest post by Jess Spate.

let my people go surfingUntil quite recently, Yvon Chouinard’s name wasn’t well known outside of the extreme sports community. He was respected largely as a leader in the Yosemite National Park rock climbing scene during the ‘Golden Age’ of the 1960s and the blacksmith who created new rock climbing gear that made getting up high safer than ever before. The first company he founded- Chouinard Equipment Ltd- is long gone but still enjoys a great deal of respect amongst rock climbers.

However, Let My People Go Surfing has more to say about Chouinard’s second, more popular venture. Patagonia clothing is sold in outdoor stores from the USA to France to Australia, and almost everywhere else. Sales are in the hundreds of millions of US dollars per year. It’s seen as high-end stuff, expensive but worth the money.

From the start, Patagonia was not quite your average company. It was one of the first to commit a serious percentage of their profits to environmental causes, one of the first to address health issues in the employee cafeteria, and one of the first to introduce on-site care for the children of the workers.

The book’s title reflects a real Patagonia policy. If it’s sunny and the surf is up, the workforce is free to take an afternoon off, get out there and enjoy it. They can take up to two months of paid leave per year as long as they spend it working for a not-for-profit cause. The company also offers each and every employee $2000 dollars to put towards the cost of an environmentally-friendly car.

The question most business-minded people will ask is this: How can any company afford to give away a minimum of 1% of all sales, pay for so much employee time spent maintaining hiking trails and preserving wilderness, take such good care of the workforce, and still make a profit?

Let My People Go Surfing has a lot to say about how to run an ethical company successfully (and Patagonia has not always been safely in the black), but one of the strongest messages is that environmental and social responsibility do not have to be a drain on company resources. They can be fantastic marketing assets.

Ethical consciousness has never been higher amongst the general public. In Britain, where the trend is very strong indeed, four out of every five shoppers recognize the Fair Trade symbol and know what it means. About 50% of the adult population regard themselves as ethical consumers. Even in the USA, where it’s less pronounced, more than $300 billion dollars are invested in funds that declare themselves to be socially responsible.

Chouinard’s book provides a fascinating insight into the way ethical behavior can be used to build a brand. It’s essential reading for any marketer who wants to reach out to the growing number of environmentally and socially minded shoppers out there.

Jess Spate works for Appalachian Outdoors, a Pennsylvania-based outdoor clothing and equipment store. They sell a wide range of Patagonia products, and are also involved in their own environmental and social projects.