By J. B. MacKinnon
Earlier this month, a peculiar vehicle appeared on the streets of Manhattan and Brooklyn: a biodiesel-fuelled, reclaimed-wood camper that could have been a food truck selling vegan “ish” and chips. But instead of a meal, the truck was made to sell a message on behalf of Patagonia, the outdoor-clothing company.
The camper, dubbed Delia, was on a six-week cross-country road trip, repairing outdoor gear and selling used Patagonia products along the way. The amount of fixing that went on was humble in scale: ninety-three garments in New York City and about twenty-one hundred nationwide. The tour, which ended May 12th in Boston, is better thought of as the latest embodiment of the company’s ongoing campaign to encourage a national conversation about the threat posed to the planet by a global economy that depends on relentless growth and consumerism.
That conversation—despite being spurred, in recent years, by such figures as the author-activists Bill McKibben (a former staff writer) and Naomi Klein; the economists Robert Costanza, Tim Jackson, and Peter Victor; and the participants in a thinly spread “degrowth” movement—has so far failed to reach the volume even of mainstream Internet buzz. Yet anti-consumerism is clearly helping to build the Patagonia brand. Indeed, the company is seeing double-digit annual growth.
Rick Ridgeway, Patagonia’s vice-president of environmental affairs, told me that the company’s approach was inspired by a 2009 Times story he read about consumer spending during the last days of the Great Recession. The article noted that the financial squeeze was putting “value in vogue”—and not only in the predictable form of bargain hunting. Impulse buying and conspicuous consumption had slowed, and some shoppers were seeking goods that offered enduring worth, such as fuel-efficient vehicles and gardening tools that allowed them to grow their own food.
“That really caught my eye, because that is our value proposition. That is what we’re trying to deliver to our customers—those kinds of products,” Ridgeway said. “I thought, Wow, if at least some small cohort of people are recognizing that, then those people are our people, and how could we do a better job of giving them what they need to live more responsibly, not just in recession but any time?”
The company’s anti-materialistic stance ramped up on Black Friday, 2011, with a memorable full-page advertisement in the Times that read, “Don’t Buy This Jacket.” The ad’s text broke down the environmental costs of the company’s top-selling R2 fleece sweater and asked consumers to think twice before buying it or any other product. The attention the ad received helped to bump Patagonia’s 2012 sales significantly.
In September, 2013, the company launched its Responsible Economy campaign. In an accompanying essay (which, like the rest of the campaign’s material, is no longer available at Patagonia.com but still can be read in Google’s cache), under a graphic that declared “growth is a dead end,” Ridgeway argued that global environmental crises such as climate change, toxic pollution, and resource depletion were only symptoms of a larger problem. Annual, compounded economic expansion, of the kind that the Club of Rome warned against in its 1972 book, “The Limits to Growth,” was the “elephant in the room.” Since Ridgeway published his essay, Patagonia’s own expansion has continued unabated: this year, the company expects to gross about six hundred million dollars.
All of this would be jet fuel for the engines of modern cynicism, if not for the fact that Patagonia, a privately owned corporation now in its fifth decade, has a distinguished record of environmental philanthropy and investment. The company has often made risky choices in favor of its ecological and social ethics, including early bets that consumers would pay more for products made with organic cotton or Fair Trade certification, the latter of which is now available on thirty-three of its products. The Responsible Economy campaign similarly backed talk with action. Patagonia is trying second-hand-clothing sales at its shop in Portland, Oregon, and has made product repair and recycling a growing part of its business model. It recently invested in Yerdle—a Web startup whose stated mission is to reduce new-product purchases by twenty-five per cent—as a way for people, and even the company itself, to swap or give away used Patagonia gear.
This spring’s truck tour was part of a related campaign called Worn Wear, which is an attempt to draft a new compact between Patagonia and its customers. The company promises to make products that endure, and to repair, resell, or recycle them as necessary, while consumers, in turn, pledge to buy only what they need, and to similarly steward their purchases from new garment to storied heirloom to the recycling bin.
It is confounding to try to draw lines around when Patagonia’s marketing encourages sales and when it discourages them. The gimlet eye will find no shortage of contradictions. Watch enough of the company’s promotional videos, which feature real Patagonia customers, and you might start to believe that the United States is mainly a nation of earthy, physically fit people who are handy with a framing hammer, enjoy rock climbing, and know their way around Bhutan (one Worn Wear spot depicts an actual mountain guide turned family farmer). But visit the company’s stores in locations like the Upper West Side, Hong Kong, and Chamonix, and you will also see the affluent recreational shoppers who helped to inspire the nickname Patagucci. Online, the company offers D.I.Y. garment-repair tutorials, produced in partnership with iFixit, but these also feature a thirty-dollar “expedition sewing kit” that resembles a prop designed for the Khaki Scouts in Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom.” Click for more information on the kit and a typical marketing stratagem plays out: you will be offered six other Patagonia products.
Corporate-social-responsibility theorists say that successful activist companies go though a “sense making” process that renders their efforts meaningful both within the corporation and among its customers. In Patagonia’s case, self-inquisition was part of the campaign. Even two years ago, with the launch of the Responsible Economy concept, Ridgeway was publicly questioning Patagonia’s steady expansion. “Companies, including ours, are reducing the environmental footprint of our individual products but increasing the footprint of our company as a whole as we grow,” he told Adweek. To GreenBiz, he said this: “It’s our hunch that all these sustainability innovations put together are not going to be enough to offset the continued increase in our human footprint that comes from this tie to growth.”
These days, the company is less ambivalent. “We’re not afraid of growth—we’re excited about it,” Adam Fetcher, the company’s director of global P.R. and communications, told me. Ridgeway was more expansive: “There is a point out there where our own growth is going to likely create more problems than it does solutions,” he said. “But as far out on the horizon line as we can see right now, we’re continuing to produce products that allow people to live a more responsible life with the apparel that they choose. As long as there’s a lot of other people out there that don’t do that, and that are creating more problems than they are solutions, then we should be growing.”
That narrative explains the Patagonia paradox: there’s bad growth, and then there’s good growth. An expanding economy driven by ever greater individual consumption of ever more disposable products is bad. In a more sustainable future, people will buy fewer things at higher prices, technological innovation will reduce the impact of those products’ manufacture, and the goods themselves will be made to last and then be recycled at the end of their useful lives. Since those are the kinds of products Patagonia is striving to make, and the kinds of relationships to products that Patagonia is trying to foster, then the more that Patagonia expands its market share, the better. The new economy must grow out from beneath the old one.
It makes sense—provided that is what’s actually happening. Company spokespeople say that Patagonia’s impressive growth over the past few years is explained by the fact that, like explorers in search of a lost tribe, they have made contact with a largely untapped market of sophisticated customers who support the brand’s anti-consumerism by thoughtfully consuming its products. “These new customers are the ones inspired by our approach with Worn Wear and other programs that stem from our values,” Fetcher said. Maybe so, but more conventional explanations are also available: for example, that the company is growing because it has expanded its reach (Patagonia has doubled its scale of operations in the past six years, and has opened forty new stores worldwide since 2011) and the impact of its marketing. Cognitive dissonance can cut both ways: it’s quite possible that Patagonia’s philosophy has attracted many shoppers to the brand without deeply affecting their buying habits, as suggested by the way that “Don’t Buy This Jacket” translated, for many, into “Buy This Jacket” in 2012.
Patagonia can’t say for sure if its growth is in fact the good kind or the bad. Fetcher says that they’ve had an “enormous outpouring of interest” from their customers, but that the company cannot currently provide any numbers on how many people are hanging onto their Patagonia jackets and board shorts for one more year rather than buying something new. Company records do indicate that Patagonia recycles about twenty thousand pounds of gear per year (roughly equal by weight to twenty thousand R2 jackets) and repairs some forty thousand garments; their Reno repair shop is the largest facility of its kind in North America. Given Patagonia’s sales figures, it is clear that the company repairs and recycles only a very small fraction of the number of products sold each year. Not a revolution at this point, then, though surely a significant gesture—corporate social responsibility’s version of propaganda of the deed.
Patagonia’s boardroom is now enough at ease with growth that they’re applying their business model in new directions. A foodstuffs division called Patagonia Provisions (shades of Wes Anderson again) aims to sell quality products that address the ecological consequences of farming, fishing, and livestock husbandry. So far, it’s small potatoes: “Just a tiny little million-plus-dollar business,” Ridgeway said. Products on offer are limited to sustainably caught Alaskan salmon; an organic toasted-grain-flour soup mix based on tsampa, the staple food of Tibet; and all-natural energy bars. “We are imagining a point out in the future where that business is probably going to eclipse the apparel business,” Ridgeway said, “because that’s where the biggest problems reside, and that’s also where the biggest solutions reside.”
A sense-making narrative survives only as long as it is believed, and it depends on being both true and perceived to be true. It is still the early days of Patagonia’s appeal to “good growth,” and the company’s core customers, sometimes referred to as Patagoniacs, appear to be patient. Lydia Baird, a student at the Fashion Institute of Technology who founded a campus cotton-muslin-composting project, was on hand when the Worn Wear truck made its Manhattan stop on the timeworn bricks of Greene Street, in front of Patagonia’s SoHo store. None of her Patagonia gear needed mending, but the repair crew was cool with patching a hole in a competing brand’s jacket, and they delivered her dad’s favorite Patagonia vest to Reno, free of charge, for a more complicated zipper fix. Environmentally literate, socially engaged, and with a clear sense that contemporary consumerism is a warm bath of contradictions, Baird is the shopper that Patagonia wants to be in business for—whether or not it really is.
“Their growth now is only positive in my eyes. The bigger they get, the more impact they can have,” Baird told me. “We definitely have to consume less, and there’s no way the world is going to be a perfect place. But maybe production can be done better. Maybe production doesn’t have to be a bad thing. And maybe Patagonia can lead us there.”
J. B. MacKinnon is the author, most recently, of “The Once and Future World: Nature As It Is, As It Was, As It Could Be,” which won the Green Prize for Sustainable Literature. He lives in Vancouver.