Finding more purpose … How Yvon Chouinard’s journey towards “why” took Patagonia further than products or profits could ever achieve

November 14, 2019

Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia, is a great purpose-driven leader. He is a dedicated nature lover who, in the late 1950s, started building climbing gear for a few people in the Yosemite mountains.

Today, Patagonia is a $200 million dollar company, widely recognized as a leader in environmental sustainability. The company’s success is particularly noteworthy in light of some of the purpose-driven decisions Chouinard made along the way. Early in Patagonia’s history, the company stopped making pitons, the metal spikes climbers hammered into rocks–and a mainstay in the business at the time– because they damaged the environment.

Some years later Chouinard took a significant risk by switching his company’s clothes to an organic cotton line. This required sourcing new products, building a new supply chain, and raising the cost of his clothing. Both moves were good for the planet and aligned the company’s work with Chouinard’s own sense of purpose, but had he been only driven by the bottom line, Chouinard likely would not have made these choices. They were costly in the short run, but they helped Patagonia thrive in the long run.

Purpose or Mission

However many people are still confused between mission and purpose. A mission is the what you’re trying to accomplish, and a purpose is the why.

Toms’ founder Blake Mycoskie says the company’s mission is to sell shoes, but his purpose is to provide free footwear to people in need. Apple’s mission centres on being a leading computer company, but Steve Jobs’s purpose was to create beautifully designed, innovative tech products. The why and the what are two different things.

Bill Damon, author of Path to Purpose defines purpose as “a long-term, forward-looking intention to accomplish aims that are both meaningful to the self and of consequence to the world beyond the self.”  Purposeful leaders act in ways that are personally meaningful and socially beneficial.

Social benefit might come in many forms. It could be about addressing fundamental challenges like climate change and protecting the natural environment, like Natura or Patagonia, even BP and Tesla. But it could also come in some more personal way, such as enriching people’s lives through confidence or happiness, such as Dove or Coca Cola, Netflix or Nike.

Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson wrote in the Financial Times Beyond the bottom line: should business put purpose before profit?  “I have seen companies such as Merck and Johnson & Johnson remind investors that their pre-Friedman founders believed profits would only flow if they attended to other priorities first; and I have heard Unilever’s outgoing CEO Paul Polman ask provocatively: ‘Why should the citizens of this world keep companies around whose sole purpose is the enrichment of a few people?’”

Profit and Purpose

Yale Insights says “Impact-driven businesses are trendy, offering both social good and profit.”

But is a purpose-driven business model the same as having a CSR plan? No.

The problem you wish to solve is the purpose of the business, and a profitable business model is then built around the solution to ensure it can solve the problem in a sustainable way.  However with CSR, the business is not necessarily driven by a cause, but simply gives away a small % of its earnings to do some good. The former has a stronger and more transformative impact.

Profit enables purpose.

What we want to create is profitable purpose-driven businesses, where profit ensures that the business has capability to deliver and extend the reach of its impact. Whilst most social enterprises tend to be nonprofits, they still need to operate in a way that sustains enough funding to achieve their goals. Businesses offer a huge platform to do good – using the power of their brands, desirable products created in better ways, and loyal consumers who desire them – to make money, and also transform society.

Start with Why

As Simon Sinek says in  Start with Why, most people know what an organisation does, but few know why they do it. In other words, most purpose-driven leaders can articulate their mission, but many mission-driven leaders cannot articulate their purpose.

Leaders focused on what, but not the why, are more likely to quickly get lost in a world where you could do anything. They get distracted by fads and trends, to give up when the going gets tough, to be viewed as opportunistic by customers and employees, and to avoid taking risks that can lead to innovation. Purpose gives them a North Star, a philosophical guide to make better choices.

Today’s business leaders are under constant pressure, from the demands of every stakeholder, to do more and better, to do more and do it faster. It is not easy to pause to connect with why you are doing it, but it is during those reflective moments that purpose-driven leaders find reason in the madness, and often make their wisest and best long term choices.

Ask yourself: Why did you start or join this company? What were you hoping to accomplish? What was your purpose? What values and beliefs support that purpose. How do those values influence the way you lead at work? The way you live at home? How could you do better?


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