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 ]