It’s Time To Climb

My head is spinning. Yvon Chouinard’s memoir/manifesto, Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman, is the reason. I don’t know that I can successfully convey how important this book is. Yet, it’s imperative that I try.
First, let me say this book is the best “ad” I’ve ever seen. I’ve been a hard core fan of Patagonia for 25 years, but this book/ad has deepened my respect for the company. The example being set in Ventura is encouraging to say the least. Knowing that business is being done differently–that is, with an ethical compass firmly in hand–is proof that there’s reason to be hopeful.
There are hundreds of pull-quotes to share, but check this one out:

When I die and go to hell, the devil is going to make me the marketing director for a cola company. I’ll be in charge of trying to sell a product that no one needs, is identical to its competition, and can’t be sold on it merits. I’d be competing head-on in the cola wars, on price, distribution, advertising, and promotion, which would indeed be hell for me. I’d much rather design and sell products so good and unique that they have no competition.

In other words, a product that needs very little, or better yet, no advertising.

Only a contrarian of epic proportions would do the things that Chouinard does. He’s not in business for himself, nor even for his workers. For Chouinard, business is a vehicle for social change. Near the end of the book, he quotes Derrick Jensen.

To expect corporations to do anything other than amass wealth is to ignore our culture’s entire history, current practices, current power structure and its system of rewards. It is to ignore everything we know about behaviour modification: we reward those investing in or running corporations for what they do, and can therefore expect them to do it again. To expect those who hide behind corporate shields to do otherwise is delusional.
Limited-liability corporations are institutions created explicitly to separate humans from the effects of their actions – making them, by definition, inhuman and inhumane. To the degree that we desire to live in a human and humane world – and, really, to the degree that we wish to survive – limited-liability corporations need to be eliminated.

Since that’s unlikely, how about we change the mindset of the people who run them? How about we hold them accountable for their actions? How about we hold ourselves accountable? Are we citizens, or are we consumers? There is a big difference between the two. We can’t consume our way to a better world. But we can become more conscious and act more responsibly.
One of the things that’s been hanging over my head for my entire advertising career is the sad fact my job is to motivate people to consume. More of this, more of that. It doesn’t matter if the product is beneficial, it just matters that there’s a paying client on the other end. Obviously, this doesn’t work for me. But I keep doing it because I have bills to pay. And I keep consuming energy made from fossil fuels, pesticide-laden foods, toxic clothing and so on.
It’s not easy to undue all this. But the central point in Let My People Go Surfing is to work on it everyday. Patagonia’s not perfect. Chouinard freely admits that. Maybe they never will be and maybe I never will be, but we can identify the ideal and spend our time and energy working to get there.



About David Burn

I wrote my first ad for a political candidate when I was 17 years old. She won her race and I felt the seductive power of advertising for the first time. Today—after working for seven agencies in five states—I am head of brand strategy and creative at Bonehook in Portland, Oregon.