As Penguin Random House continues its ongoing commitment to social responsibility, today we’re featuring an interview with Penguin Press Vice President and Publisher Scott Moyers. He worked closely with world renowned environmentalist and Patagonia co-founder Yvon Chouinard on his book, Let My People Go Surfing; a 10th anniversary fully updated trade paperback edition was published by Penguin last fall.
In this interview, Scott offers insights into Mr. Chouinard’s book, business philosophies, core values, and environmental activism as well as the “contagious success” of Patagonia, whose primary mission is “to use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.” The recent news on the Earth Setting a Temperature Record for the Third Straight Year reminds us all of the urgency of global warming and the importance of how we consider the environment.
What brought about your initial contact with Yvon Chouinard and how would you characterize the experience and process of working with him as his book editor and publisher while presenting all aspects of his life and business?
Yvon Chouinard is powerfully inspiring because he has stubbornly refused to do anything with his business that does not advance its core mission: “to use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.” You can’t be in partnership with him without learning that, one way or another. I was submitted the book by his agent, Susan Golomb, in 2004 or 2005, and I knew enough about Patagonia’s brand halo, as they say, and was sufficiently taken by the voice on the page, which even in proposal form had that thrilling ring of authenticity and irreverence, that I went for it, and was fortunate enough to prevail in a heated auction. But really diving off the deep end with him was something else entirely. First, everything was slightly irreverent, and counterintuitive – what business leader calls his memoir “Let My People Go Surfing?” Which is from the company policy that when the surf’s up, employees should feel free to hit it. And he wanted to do an oddball trim size, with all sorts of funky sidebars and a lot of art. And he and Patagonia nudged us over to using a different kind of paper, recycled, of course. And on and on.
But what really hit me was the story of the business itself. Just one story for now: there came a point when Patagonia commissioned a holistic environmental impact study of their entire business. What came back surprised and dismayed them: the worst thing they were doing to the planet was using so much factory-farmed cotton. As you can imagine, cotton shirts, etc., make up a big chunk of the business. What did they do? They pulled all of their cotton products, reinvented their supply chain, sourced their cotton ethically and in such a way as to catalyze environmentally responsible cotton growing more generally… in short, they used their market power to be a force for good and not ill. And ultimately, in the long run, they were more profitable by doing so! In the short run, of course, they had to absorb a tremendous hit to the bottom line. Needless to say, if they were a publicly held company, this might have been impossible, even unimaginable. Though thanks in no small part to Patagonia’s example, there’s been a change in consciousness, and perhaps it’s less unimaginable than it was. I hope this book has contributed to that; I think it has.
How does Let My People Go Surfing, divided into a History of Patagonia and eight Philosophies sections, best inform and inspire readers through key takeaways from this environmentally-responsible businessman/adventurer and his company?
I think the bottom-line takeaway for your own life and work is that, in area after area – design, production, distribution, marketing, finance, HR, management, environmental stewardship – if you don’t blink, if you keep fear at bay and keep your focus on the most quality for the least harm, you will be a magnet for talented, big-hearted colleagues and customers, and your story will carry. Every time this company took a short-term hit to innovate in the direction of greater responsibility for the state and fate of the earth, the more successful they have been in the long term.
How transferable are Mr. Chouinard’s approaches to business, life and the environment to other industries and individual readers?
No one wants to leave their values at home when they come to work. Yvon Chouinard never did, and his company has been an enormous force for the good. We all are part of the problem that is the global sustainability crisis, including global warming, one way or another. Activism and capitalism don’t have to be opposed, in fact they can’t be, if we’re going to keep this planet of ours and all the creatures on it.
What factors were involved in the decision to produce a new edition of Let My People Go Surfing on the 10th anniversary of its first publication and what are examples of some of the most significant new content?
Back in 2006, “sustainable business” was just emerging as a concept in mainstream terms. Part of the good news of the past decade is that sustainability has become cooked in to the mix of business education, at the MBA level and down, and Let My People Go Surfing is widely taught. The past decade has been a period of great growth and thus change for Patagonia, and it has also really doubled down and then some on its environmental activism, so there was so much more to tell. Yvon added a good 20% of new material to the book, including an entirely new chapter on environmental activism, and Naomi Klein has added a passionate new foreword. There are revisions throughout the book, my favorite being that it’s now in four-color and Yvon and Patagonia have added many wonderful new photographs. One way or another, all of the additions only sharpen the point, which is that, as Naomi Klein puts it in her foreword, “This is the story of an attempt to do more than change a single corporation – it is an attempt to challenge the culture of consumption that is at the heart of the global ecological crisis.” And to have fun doing it! Contagious fun, contagious righteousness, contagious success – that’s Yvon Chouinard and Patagonia, and that’sLet My People Go Surfing, now cleaned up for the next 10 years, and then some.
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We know readers tend to be writers too, so we feature writing tips from our authors. Who better to offer advice, insight, and inspiration than the authors you admire? They’ll answer several questions about their work, share their go-to techniques and more. Now, get writing!
Did you always want to write? How did you start your career as an author?
Yes. As a child, when people used to ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would say I wanted to be an authoress (that word certainly dates me, doesn’t it?). I used to fill notebooks with stories. When I grew up, of course, I discovered that I needed to eat so became a high school English teacher. Then I got married and had children. There was no time to write. I took a year’s leave of absence following the birth of my third child and worked my way through a suggested Grade XI reading list. It included Georgette Heyer’s Frederica. I was enchanted, perhaps more than I have been with any book before or since. I read everything she had written and then went into mourning because there was nothing else. I decided that I must write books of my own set in the same historical period. I wrote my first Regency (A Masked Deception) longhand at the kitchen table during the evenings and then typed it out and sent it off to a Canadian address I found inside the cover of a Signet Regency romance. It was a distribution centre! However, someone there read it, liked it, and sent in on to New York. Two weeks later I was offered a two-book contract.
What’s the best piece of advice you have received?
Someone (I can’t even remember who) at a convention I attended once advised writers who sometimes sat down to work with a blank mind and no idea how or where to start to write anyway. It sounded absurd, but I have tried it. Nonsense may spill out, but somehow the thought processes get into gear and soon enough I know if what I have written really is nonsense. Sometimes it isn’t. But even if it is, by then I know exactly how I ought to have started, and I delete the nonsense and get going. I have never suffered from writers’ block, but almost every day I sit down with my laptop and a blank mind.
What clichés or bad habits would you tell aspiring writers to avoid? Do you still experience them yourself?
You don’t have to know everything before you start. You don’t have to know the whole plot or every nuance of your characters in great depth. You don’t have to have done exhaustive research. All three things are necessary, but if you wait until you know everything there is to know, you will probably never get started. Get going and the knowledge will come—or at least the knowledge of what exact research you need to do.
Do you ever base characters off people you know? Why or why not?
Never consciously. I wouldn’t want anyone to recognize himself or herself in my books. However, I have spent a longish lifetime living with people and interacting with them and observing them. I like my characters to be authentic, so I suppose I must take all sorts of character traits from people around me. And sometime yes, I suddenly think “Oh, this is so-and-so.”
What are three or four books that influenced your writing, or had a profound affect on you?
All the books of Georgette Heyer would fit here. She was thorough in her research and was awesomely accurate in her portrayal of Georgian and Regency England. At the same time she made those periods her own. She had her own very distinctive voice and vision. When I began to write books set in the same period, I had to learn to do the same thing—to find my own voice and vision so that I was not merely trying to imitate her (something that never works anyway).
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