3 Lessons I Learned from Yvon Chouinard

I was lucky enough to work for Yvon Chouinard and Patagonia in the early years of its growth in Europe.  Of all the outdoor brands I represented while living in Switzerland and afterwards through my own creative agency based in London, Patagonia was the brand all extreme outdoor sports enthusiasts aspired to be hired by.  Whether you were a ski photographer, a brand-builder or a designer. Yvon Chouinard was one of the first people I ever met with such complete clarity of vision, values and ethics, I cherish the time and the lessons I learned. There were many but three stand out.

1. A PRINCIPLE’S NOT A PRINCIPLE UNTIL IT COSTS YOU SOMETHING

Although Yvon and Patagonia are now world famous for their environmental leadership, it wasn’t always the case. Back in the 80s when the brand was an underground hit amongst extreme outdoors sports enthusiasts – mainly mountaineers and skiers – the legendary Snap T was produced in an amazing array of colours. I had the very yellow and purple trim one pictured in the picture below.  It travelled with me all over the world.  Trouble was the production of Snap Ts used a lot of chemicals including formaldehyde. It wasn’t until sickness first started to appear in the newly opened Boston store, that the company first started to seriously investigate the source of contamination and Yvon and Patagonia’s dedicated approach to becoming one of the world’s cleanest brand’s got started.

By Didier Givois

By Didier Givois

It hasn’t always been an easy road. It has often been at the expense of profit and taken many hours, months and years of hard work and dedication to find and train the supply chain, the design teams, and create the infrastructure to support the mission. Award winning communications and CSR initiatives like The Footprint Chronicles, weblog The Cleanest Line, and the Patagonia Environmental & Social Initiatives are recognised as gold standards in the industry, but as Yvon has often said:

Living the examined life is a pain in the ass.”  fortune-yvon-chouinard

Yvon Chouinard, Patagonia

But there’s the thing; if you’re prepared to compromise on the principles you set your brand when the going gets tough, they’re not principles at all. I’ve never once seen Patagonia take the easy route around trying to be an environmental leader. Once the commitment was made in 1988, I’ve never seen Yvon flinch from taking difficult decisions in pursuit of becoming a responsible company.

He taught me how to examine all actions a brand takes from a perspective of intention and to map the actions against values. I learned how to build a wholly integrated brand from working with and watching Patagonia.

2. ENGAGEMENT COMES FROM SHARED VALUES

Long before ‘value-based-leadership’ became a corporate buzzword, Yvon Chouinard had understood how to build a tribe of raving fans through shared values. He describes them in his own words in Let My People Go Surfing but here’s my version from the sidelines:

  • Love something enough that you live and breathe it – in the case of Patagonia, the great and challenging outdoors. From the most dangerous climbs to powder bowls and even extreme fishing, Patagonia employees are never far from an adventure. Their offices are based in beautiful locations where you’re surrounded by the beauty of nature.
  • Understand the nature of how your tribe interacts with what you love – in Patagonia’s case through ultimate challenges of man in nature – and give it to them in spades. Tap into legendary extreme photographers and sports adventurers in all the places around the world where you’re most likely to find them and you become a magnet for aspiring outdoor adventurers.

3.CULTURE IS LIVED NOT AIR-BRUSHED ON

Both Patagonia and Timberland were among the first global organisations to build an integrated culture which reflected the environment their brands were used in. No one needed to introduce dress-down Fridays at Patagonia because there were never any dressing up days!

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I never wore anything other than a t-shirt or a sweatshirt to meetings, they were frequently held outdoors, and often cancelled at the last minute if the surf was up, or the fish were running. Once I was sitting in front of a media diva waiting for Yvon to arrive from the States for a key series of interviews when the message finally came through that he has gone fishing instead of getting on the plane! Although I was terrified of the outcome, authenticity won the day and it was probably the best article ever written about a brand by a journalist who wasn’t known for suffering fools gladly. I learned a bit more about courage that day and that authenticity will always be respected.

Let My People Go Surfing is now a cultural must-read for most aspiring marketers but if they look at it as a marketing tool, they miss the point. When people work in an environment they love, with people with whom they have deep shared values, a high level of productivity results. Many brands have since tried to replicate the natural DNA that emerged from Patagonia, with and without success.

Because Yvon lived it and breathed it, it took life from his leadership and continues to do so, despite its size. Authenticity is a another buzzword today, but you won’t find it bandied about in Patagonia – it just is. Although he could be described as an inspirational leader, what he really is, is The Source. The embodiment of the brand.

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