Fast Company

Patagonia Asks Its Customers To Buy Less

A new initiative to get people to repair or resell their Patagonia clothes might hurt the bottom line, but the outdoor gear company is pretty sure it's going to help both profits and the planet.

Many consumer goods companies have environmental initiatives. Think of Dell's e-waste recycling program, for example. Or P&G's commitment to 100 percent renewable energy. Or the Chevy Volt, even. 

But, as laudable as these are, you might argue that they are secondary to a larger problem. All these companies still want us to buy more products. If a consumer goods company truly wanted to be sustainable, they might suggest that we consume a little less, or at least price their goods at a cost that reflects their true impact. 

Which is a crazy idea, of course. What company would ask us to consume less of their things, and make their stuff deliberately more expensive? 

Patagonia, for one. The Californian apparel company last month launched an initiative encouraging their customers to reduce, repair, reuse, and recycle their clothing and equipment. Their ad even features the line: "Reduce what you buy," in bold caps, much like something out of an anti-capitalism rally. 

"We realized that what was really needed was a mutual responsibility between company and customer for the full lifecycle of stuff," Rick Ridgeway, Patagonia's environment VP. "So we would try to reduce the amount of stuff that people buy, fixing products if they were broken, and asking people to clean out their garages and closets, so that if you have clothes you are no longer using, you put them back into circulation."

As part of its Common Threads scheme, Patagonia offers to repair its clothes (for a "reasonable" fee) on a 10-day turnaround. It also will help you sell its clothes via an eBay channel or at Patagonia.com. 

After it was launched at New York fashion week last month, some commentators described the initiative as an inspired piece of marketing that would cement customer loyalty and reinforce the message that Patagonia apparel is long-lasting and worth holding on to. 

But Ridgeway insists that the impetus for the project is less about improving sales and customer retention, than a sincere response to the planetary crisis (as he sees it). 

"I have zero budget to do any kind of customer survey. We do what feels right, and we go by instinct. We have no way of knowing how this will affect our sales one way or another. But what we are watching are the mega-trends. Anyone who can read can see that we are heading for a cliff."

Specifically, Ridgeway points to analysis showing that humanity currently uses natural resources 1.4 times the rate at which the earth can restore them.

"The main thing is that we're trying to get people to wake up, and we have a lot of loyal customers who appreciate our willingness to initiate dialogue like this," he says.

"We want to challenge other businesses too. The fundamental assumption that we can continue on a growth economy is flawed in the long term. We need to start talking about what we are going to do about it."

Patagonia says it will not make any money from the scheme: it is not getting a rake-off from eBay sales, or making a profit on its repair service. And Ridgeway says it wouldn't matter: if Common Threads does result in higher sales, Patagonia will give more more to environmental groups.

"In response to anyone who says this a clever marketing ploy, we say that higher sales will allow us to carry out our mission statement. We take one percent of sales off the top, and give it to environmental groups. The better we do, the more we give back." 

It is hard to see how Patagonia's model could be replicated by brands that rely on selling large volumes at cheap prices. Patagonia is a private company, "owned by by people who aren't looking to get wealthy," and has a loyal band of conscious customers who seem to be willing to pay a little more.

Ridgeway says Common Threads is not an implied criticism of "fast fashion." But he does think that other companies need to look at environmental issues in a more fundamental, long-term way.

"We don't want to criticize people. We want to ask them to start thinking about their business practices and create a dialogue. All apparel companies have to ask where they are going to be in five, 10, 20 years' time, when the natural resources of this planet are in increasingly critical condition."

[Image: Flickr user Impicard]

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2 Comments

  • Chris Reich

    I'd like Patagonia to reduce the number of duplicate catalogs they send me. Why do they not cross check the address rather than simply send to every possible variation on my name? For a while, even the dog was getting a catalog.

    Further, at their prices, they will have little to worry about in their efforts to drive down prices. I have little desire to pay $100 for a $20 sweater made in China. Now if Patagonia offered me a $100 MADE IN THE USA sweater and more, I'd buy all my wannabe outdoorsman/chic clothing from them. Take the hint?

    Chris Reich
    www.TeachU.com

  • Ecoreader

    Chris, maybe give them a call and save a tree or two. I'm sure they would appreciate that and your feedback regarding duplicate address checks. I'd appreciate the saved tree!