I’ve always tried to run Patagonia according to the rule that there is no business so pressing that it’s worth missing good surf for. But our “Let My People Go Surfing” policy, which allows staff to duck out on short notice to take advantage of fresh snow or big waves, isn’t simply just a perk we offer to employees. It’s part of a deliberate effort we make as a business to blur the lines between work and “real life” in a way that will strengthen our connection to the natural world and cultivate our collective sense of environmental stewardship.
This philosophy of responsible enterprise has taught me my most important lesson as a businessman: Doing the right thing for the environment makes for good, financially sound business. At Patagonia we’ve found that every time we’ve elected to do the right thing, even when it costs twice as much, it’s turned out to be more profitable in the long run. It has allowed us to contribute to conservation organizations working on behalf of the world’s natural areas and wildlife, including the marine life in California’s coastal waters through the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA).
The ocean and the sea life it sustains are a part of our natural heritage and should be managed in trust for future generations, yet less than one percent of the ocean is protected. Each year the fish get smaller and less numerous. This is a disturbing trend we are seeing in oceans worldwide, and reminds me of the growing pains Patagonia went through as a company in the 1980s. As we grew, we exceeded our resources and limitations. We had become dependent on growth we couldn’t sustain, and it forced us to rethink our priorities and institute new practices.
Similarly, the fishery management tools we have cannot restore the size and diversity of species that existed just a few decades ago. Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), however, have proven to be an effective tool for restoring this balance and improving overall ocean health.
We must strive to be good stewards and develop long-term sustainability in our choices about the ocean. The MLPA is a forward-looking law that calls for a network of MPAs along the length of the California coastline. That network has already been mapped out for the central part of the state, and the California Fish and Game Commission will make a final decision on protected areas for southern California during their meeting in Santa Barbara on December 15. Public comments will be accepted, so if you care about the future of the southern California coast, please attend and make your voice heard.
The MLPA takes us a step towards making the 21st century the Century of the Environment, as Edward O. Wilson calls for in his 2002 book, The Future of Life. Government, the private sector, and science need to come together and cooperate to find ways of solving the major environmental challenges we face. All of California’s ocean users, from surfers and environmentalists to fishermen and scientists, have been called in to take part in the public process of establishing this important network, which in addition to safeguarding some of our priceless ocean habitat, will make the ocean more resilient to additional stress.
And let’s not forget the short-term payoffs: California’s coastal economies depend on a healthy ocean. According to the National Ocean Economics Program, southern California’s coastal economy employs more than 7 million people and contributes nearly $900 billion to the overall state economy. The vast majority of coastal visitors come for reasons other than fishing: they come to dive, walk the beach, surf and watch wildlife.
As legendary environmentalist David Brower once said, “There’s no business to be done on a dead planet.” Perhaps that’s a bit grim, but it reminds us that we need to overcome the sensibility that business and environmental stewardship are mutually exclusive. We can use business to inspire and implement solutions to our environmental challenges.
Sometimes a problem, like halting the decline in the health of the oceans, can seem so massive you don’t know how to begin to address it. Patagonia’s environmental efforts began in the 1970s when a bunch of ragtag rock climbers wanted to find a way to prevent damage to Yosemite’s amazing rock walls. Today we’re donating millions of dollars every year to environmental organizations around the world.
In other words, start close to home and see where it leads. A network of MPAs along California’s coastline will bring major ecologic and economic benefits to the state, and set a gold standard for ocean protection we can hope to replicate around the world.
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Yvon Chouinard is the founder and owner of Patagonia, Inc.