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Don't Buy This Shirt Unless You Need It

by Yvon Chouinard & Nora Gallagher
Late Summer 2004

Near the headquarters of Patagonia, on the central coast of California, the Chumash Nation enjoyed a good life for thousands of years. They lived in small villages and possessed fur blankets, intricate baskets and soapstone pots decorated with shells. They painted elaborate abstracts in mountain caves. In every village were game-playing fields and sacred buildings. Almost every day, most Chumash enjoyed a cleansing sweat in the village temescal. In each village was a granary for stockpiling food that would later be distributed to those in need.

Chumash traded exquisite olivella shells for black pigment, honeydew melons, pine nuts, wild tobacco and various herbs and salt. By the 16th century, theirs was a complex society of hunters and gatherers with a far-reaching, sophisticated trade network.

Other nations along the western coast shared this life. Gerald Amos, a member (and former chief) of the Haisla Nation in Kitamaat, northwest Canada, recalls a friend of his father who would leave home in the dark to paddle to his trapline four miles by water. He would spend the day walking the lines, checking and resetting the traps. “Along the way back to the boat, during the late fall and early winter, the coho salmon would be still in the creeks that they passed, so they would stop at one of these creeks and take a couple of coho, which they would clean and pack home in their backpack together with what-ever animals they had taken in their traps. The fish provided them with their supper later that night."

Such lives are often called subsistence, which brings to mind the barest, hardscrabble survival. But there is another way to look at them. At Patagonia we choose to call them “economies of abundance.” In an economy of abundance, there is enough. Not too much. Not too little. Enough. Most important, there is enough time for the things that matter: relationships, delicious food, art, games and rest.

Many of us in the United States live in what is thought to be abundance, with plenty all around us, but it is only an illusion, not the real thing. The economy we live in is marked by “not enough.” We once asked the owner of a successful business if he had enough money and he replied, “Don’t you understand? There is never enough.”

We don't have enough money, and we also don’t have enough time. We don’t have enough energy, solitude or peace. We are the world’s richest country, yet our quality of life ranks 14th in the world. As Eric Hoffer, a mid-20th century philosopher, put it, “You can never get enough of what you don’t really need to make you happy."

And while we work harder and harder to get more of what we don’t need, we lay waste to the natural world. Dr. Peter Senge, author and MIT lecturer, says, “We are sleepwalking into disaster, going faster and faster to get to where no one wants to be.”

We might call this economy, the one we live in, the economy of scarcity.

About the Author
Yvon Chouinard is the owner of Patagonia and is working on a book about the Patagonia philosophy of business.

Nora Gallagher is the author of two memoirs, Things Seen and Unseen and Practicing Resurrection (both published by Alfred A. Knopf and Vintage Books), and the editor of Patagonia: Notes from the Field (Chronicle Books). She edits environmental essays for Patagonia.