There is No Such Thing as Sustainability

One of the finds during my ongoing spring cleaning at the Gemba office was an article with quotes by outdoor clothing and equipment company Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard, with references to his book Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman. I read this story of both the company and its founder, full of evocative photographs, business philosophy, and found the experience both rewarding and challenging.
Students of lean thinking will recognize the principles of humility, respect for people, continuous improvement, long term thinking, listening to customers, and a concern with minimizing waste in the story of Patagonia. In this quote from an interview (not the book) by Chouinard he demonstrates a higher understanding of the “stop and fix” principle than even the concept’s originator Toyota.

It’s always been difficult for us to lead an examined life as a corporation. I’ve always felt like a company has the responsibility to not wait for the government to tell it what to do, or to wait for the consumer to tell it what to do, but as soon as it finds out it’s doing something wrong, stop doing it.

Toyota may have recently and briefly forgotten that their purpose for existence is not to make cars or make money but to contribute to society. Most corporations would disagree that their purpose is anything other than the three words maximize shareholder value. Yvon Chouinard sees it another way:

What they don’t realize is that I’m not in the business to make clothes. I’m not in the business to make more money for myself, for Christ’s sake. This is the reason Patagonia exists — to put into action the recommendations I read about in books to avoid environmental collapse.

Yvon Chouinard is an accomplished mountain climber, writer and recognized as one of America’s top 25 leaders. He operates under the hypothesis that social problems have their roots in environmental problems, and as such is committed to addressing these root causes. As a self-taught businessman Chouinard has evidently studied Toyota’s management principles. This insight alone made the book worth reading:

Most people, governments, and businesses don’t want to ask the Toyota five whys because continuing to ask follow-up questions could lead to finding the real causes of their problems (more often than not environmental), which in turn would force them to make a change or be left with feelings of guilt. And there is money to be made in endlessly working on symptoms, like starting resource wars to protect our gas-guzzling way of life rather than work on energy efficiency or working to “cure” cancer with a pill rather than address its environmental causes.

At this point readers will likely self-select and either like or dislike Chouinard’s philosophy, based on agreeing or disagreeing with the inevitably political positions reflected in the quote above. Allow me to step back from the politics for a moment and build on Chouinard’s idea, using a sport analogy. Imagine how a basketball game would play out if the two teams agreed neither on the goal of the game nor the rules of the game. Few would enjoy playing or watching that game. Yet this is exactly how we attempt to solve our big problems today. People take opposing sides of a shared problem, and the joke is on us. Our problems are not going away. Nobody wins that basketball game.

When we ask the Toyota five why questions while various sides have agreed neither on the definition of the problem nor the problem solving process they will follow, we have the situation Chouinard describes. Problem solving is most effective when we agree on the problem and put it within a larger context, set targets towards the ideal, analyze root causes to find meaningful points of action, build consensus, test many countermeasures, follow through and learn from success and failure.

There was also a quote in the book from ecological economist Robert Costanza which captured in one sentence one of my longstanding concerns regarding the pursuit of economic development:

“We’ve been cooking the books for a long time by leaving out the worth of nature.”

This was in the context of research done demonstrating how long-term costs outweigh the short term benefits of exploiting environmental resources and converting natural self-sustaining ecosystems to non-renewing monocultures.

Another way to think about Costanza’s idea would be to say that businesses today are only operating with half of a balance sheet, the assets. The environmental liabilities that we are all incurring are totally invisible on corporate balance sheets. As a society we have no equivalent of a balance sheet showing the benefits of growth and development (assets) against the harm caused by the degradation of our topsoil, fresh water supply and food supply, the erosion of our manufacturing job-base, or any of the unintended consequences of global economic growth measured narrowly.

As a businessman-environmentalist, Yvon Chouinard is at once a realist and idealist. He has built a unique and admirable enterprise rooted in uncompromising values. At the same time, he does not rest on his laurels or fall prey to becoming the face of another passing corporate fashion. Yvon Chouinard speaks words like a kaizen sensei:

There’s no such thing as sustainability. It’s just kind of a path you get on and try — each day try to make it better.