Design & Innovation, Entrepreneurship, Shopping & Consumption

The Examined Life & Mindful Business: From Socrates to Yvon Chouinard of Patagonia

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“The unexamined life is not worth living.”

Socrates uttered these words at his trial for heresy – for encouraging his students to challenge the accepted beliefs of the time, and to think for themselves – and chose instead to drink hemlock than live in prison or exile.

To think critically, to question the status quo, to continuously strive to find better ways to learn, discover and do things, better ways to contribute to the world, better ways to live life – these are all vital to a meaningful, worthwhile existence.

Chouinard’s Philosophy: The Patagonia school of thought

In the same way, Yvon Chouinard, dubbed by Wall Street Journal as “America’s most unlikely business guru”, says that the examined life is a pain in the ass, and yet, there’s no other way he’d rather do business, as founder of the 40-year-old outdoor apparel company Patagonia.

Photo c/o
Photo c/o

In spite of the challenges that come with “the examined life”, coupled with his lack of optimism about the state of the planet, he still chose, long before corporate social responsibility (CSR) or social entrepreneurship were mainstream – to build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire, and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.

In 1985, the company committed 10% of pre-tax profits to grassroots environmental groups, then later increasing that to at least 1% of sales annually. They recognize that they use up resources and produce waste, and therefore, have a negative impact on the environment. And for them, this is not CSR, charity or philanthropy. It’s part of the cost of doing business; a cost for being polluters. [1]

Quoting conservationist David Brower, “There is no business to be done on a dead planet,” shared Chouinard. [2]

Conscious Production: The Socratic Method in business

Chouinard asks questions about the raw materials of their products, and its corresponding impact on the environment. This prompted them to come up with The Footprint Chronicles, which makes their supply chain completely transparent, an extremely arduous and costly exercise to say they made their products with a clear conscience. “This company exists to ask the questions and make the choices, and then prove that it’s good business to other companies so that they can do it,” says Chouinard. [2]

They’ve taken on this task of questioning, and of influencing other businesses, so much so that together with Wal-Mart and other clothing companies, Patagonia is working to create a sustainability index. With this, consumers will be armed with the knowledge of exactly how a particular brand of clothing is produced, allowing consumers to can make better informed choices, choices that align more with their own values, because Chouinard believes when given the choice of buying a product that was made responsibly, and one that was not, people will choose the responsible one. [3]

Examination & Innovation: Carrying this over to your company

With many enterprises and individuals now seeking more meaning, fulfillment, and purpose, you may now be thinking, how can I make our company run this way? How can I improve our supply chain, operations, and corresponding environmental impact, while being financially sustainable?

It is time and resource-intensive (especially for startups and small businesses) to constantly examine the different aspects of production and operations; it is a task that has no end. But now more than ever, consumers are demanding this information and transparency.

“I know that I know nothing,” is Socrates’ paradoxical reply to being pronounced as the wisest man in Athens in his time. [4]

And while businesses may not have all of the answers right away, or be 100% responsible (Patagonia, even with all its initiatives, doesn’t claim to be; they believe they still have a long way to go), there is merit in questioning the way business is done, and get started on doing things differently.

Rose Marcario, Patagonia’s current CEO shared in an interview with Fast Company, “Unless you really examine a problem or an issue, I don’t think you can really effectively innovate it. All the people that do the work in our production and design group—they ask deep questions, and we need a world full of people asking deep questions or else we’re not going to have a world to live in.”

Jen Horn - Profile PicABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jen Horn is the founder of MUNI, a communications and community engagement consultant, and an advocate of responsible travel & consumption. She enjoys being in, on, under, or near the water, eating veggies, witty remarks and sarcasm, and learning about link between psychology and pro-environmental behavior. She works to use jedi mind tricks to help the world triumph over apathy, single-use plastic, among other things we don’t need in the world. Follow her at @nomadmanager.


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