Patagonia: What a Business with a Purpose Really Looks Like

Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia, thinks he and his partners made every mistake possible on their path to growth. They failed to train new leaders, they failed to expand thoughtfully, they had “a Rubik’s Cube of product-market development,” they once restructured the organization five times in five years, and yet somehow they stayed in business. How’d they do it?


1.       Embrace change – at all times. Chouinard said, “When there is no crisis, the wise leader or CEO will invent one. Not by crying wolf but by challenging the employees with change.” He figured if a person couldn’t evolve when things were calm, they definitely wouldn’t be able to evolve when things got difficult. In order to not make pointless changes, he also stressed that they…

2.       Stay focused on the mission. Patagonia’s “reason for being” revolves around protecting the planet. They recognize that no business can be perfect, but they actively seek to do less harm AND do more good. If there’s a way to change some business practice that does less harm or more good, they’re interested. Finally, they’re very interested in how their seemingly small decisions compound over time, which means they…

3.       Always plan for the long, long term. Chouinard is fond of the Iroquois concept of seven generation planning. Instead of thinking long-term within our lifespan, he wants to think of the grandkids of his great-great grandkids. That includes the sustainability of the company beyond him, as well as the sustainability of the planet we occupy.


In Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman, we get a real insight into what it means to run a company with a well-defined purpose. Most of us won’t ever achieve anywhere near Chouinard’s level of dedication, but it is a height we should all be familiar with. Having a reason for what we do takes our passions and puts a clear story on top. Witnessing how his noble determination transformed him and Patagonia over the decades, complete with all of the obstacles they collectively faced, is nothing short of inspiring.


What we can do is to make sure our businesses address: personal development, collective growth, a unifying mission, and a mindset that’s focused on the long, long term. It applies to our companies, our teams, and our client relationships. Chouinard shows us just how high that bar can be set. Stretch. 


Even if you don’t read the book – check out Patagonia’s policies on exchanges, returns, and repairs for life, see “The Footprint Chronicles” where they detail their products from material sourcing, to labor, to sales, and acknowledge their ever-evolving attention to their employees (they had on-site child care in the early 1980s). They are a special company. 

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