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Humanity currently uses natural resources 1.4 times the rate at which the earth can restore them. Patagonia wants to help lower that number.

2011-10-25

Co.Exist

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 they are secondary to a larger problem. All these companies still want us to buy more product. 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 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 marketing that would cement customer loyalty and reinforce the message that Patagonia apparel is long-lasting and worth holding onto.

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 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."

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5 Comments

  • Bob S

    Of course, the assumption that we can grow the economy forever is flawed.  It has been flawed for a long time, and it is more so now with over 7 billion human beings on this planet.  We have been brainwashed by clever marketing into believing we can achieve happiness through consumption paid for either by working more hours or by being more productive.  This, by the way, has been a scam over the past 30 years in the U.S.  The working hours went up, the productivity went up, and the only one who benefited in terms of wealth increase was the top 1%, hence the OWS movement.  The consumption of the 99% did go up, but it was financed by credit cards and home equity loans, not by an increase in real wages.
    The level of consumption in the so-called developed world is clearly unsustainable.  It is also immoral, unfair, and unjust because we know that if every family in China, India, and Africa achieved the level of consumption of stuff of a family in the U.S., the planet would go up in smoke.
    The only way out is to cut back on the consumption in the developed countries.  The best way to achieve this would be through a drastically shortened work week.  Given the current productivity levels and population, there is no way we can give a 40-hour/week job to every person who needs a job.  Instead of figuring out how to solve the unemployment by growing the economy (i.e. by creating another bubble that will burst in ten years), we need to start sharing the jobs that exist among more people.  Demand a 20-hour work week now!

  • UncleGroOve

    Not a bad idea at all. I would be totally in favor of spending more for a higher quality garment that I can use for x years in the future. I still have some t-shirts I purchased in the early 90s (!) which I had "overpaid" just because they were brand-y back then in Italy (the brand was Best Company)...but heck...those garments are still with me, in great condition.
    Looking at many comments on kickstarter.com (for hardware projects), it would appear that many funders would be willing to pay more for domestically sourced good - and it can be presumed that a higher price, higher quality product wuld not be so easily thrashed as a zero-cost (i.e. cellphones) or a cheap item (i.e. "import" jeans).
    The bottom line is that collectively we need to go back to a cultural attitude of appreciation for the material things we own, instead of focusing on "spending better" - which usually translates into "the less I pay for goods, the more goods I can afford" (and subsequently thrash).
    Had it not died on me I'd be still using my first gen iPhone, and my Pismo laptop (long live OS 9.2.2!!) ;-)

    Paul

  • Adam Butler

    I sent Patagonia the following email on 8/24/2009
    My thought for Patagonia is this... I love your recycling efforts. Hell, I love just about all of your efforts. I reward you for this with my purchases. You reward me with products that rule and customer service that matches. We have a shared ethos. It all works. Which is precisely why I am submitting the following idea - The Dirt Bag Section.The Dirt Bag Section is where recycling meets bartering inside of Patagonia retail stores. Here is how it works - People bring in apparel that isn't too bombed out for someone else to use it (as determined by Patagonia staff). Perhaps they've outgrown it, or they've lost weight, or they don't like the color, or they are giving up winter sports, etc. They bring the item to a retail store and they pay 5 dollars to have it stocked in The Dirt Bag Section. For this fee they have the right to pursue any other single item in The Dirt Bag Section for their own. OR they can receive 5 dollars off any new item in the store. Thus The Dirt Bag Section becomes a reason to visit Patagonia retail stores more often. It's the X factor, the treasure hunt, the lucky strike extra that makes retail more organic and funky. It also invites the core into the store, The Dirt Bag. Test it in Austin and I will bring in an R4 fleece immediately to kick this party off. 

  • James McBennett

    One thing that cannot be faked is a circular economy with peace of mind that what you buy will be taken back. This could indeed be a very smart move.

  • Clayton Kern

    Patagonia does make great things, that do last and I applaud them for their moves, it's a lot more than other commercial enterprises are doing at this time. The only thing they miss is that used clothing, that lasts just as long as theirs can be found in just about any town for pocket change, they are called thrift stores. Many years ago I made a commitment to myself for environmental reasons, but also fiscal reasons to make every attempt to not buy anything new. This commitment allows me to live comfortably earning about $10k a year, and knowing that my footprint on the Earth is about as small as I can manage in the US, without becoming an "extremist". Hopefully other companies will follow Patagonia's lead, and hopefully the next "cool" thing will be to buy used things, fix broken things, and we can change this disposable world we live in!