Sustainable products may well be yesterday’s news—at least according to upscale sportswear brand Patagonia.
The marketer of $500 goose-down jackets is reaching beyond its eco-friendly practices to address the link between environmental decline and economic growth. It is pushing businesses and politicians to figure out how to save the planet by curbing growth and producing fewer goods.
Patagonia’s initiative, “The Responsible Economy,” began Sept. 24 with a series of promos via email, its website, social channels and its latest catalog. One graphic calls out consumers on the relentless consumption cycle of “see that thing, want that thing, tire of that thing, see that [new] thing”—what some might call consumerism in a nutshell.
The company says the production of green products—including its own—has proven ineffective. “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,” said Rick Ridgeway, Patagonia vp, environmental affairs. An energy-efficient or recycled product doesn’t preserve resources such as fuel, water and clean air if people just buy more of them, he added.
Sales at privately owned Patagonia have grown 27 percent over the last two years, reaching $575 million in fiscal 2013. Its marketing has included the sponsorship of adventurers taking private flights to exotic locales—hardly a restrained use of natural resources.
The new positioning tries to recognize the conflicts between what the brand is saying and what it is doing. “Our mission is to face the question of growth both by bringing it up and by looking at our own situation as a business fully ensnared in the global industrial economy,” said Yvon Chouinard, Patagonia’s founder and owner. Added Ridgeway: “It is an internal conversation about how we can stop contributing to the problem.”
Such tactics are catnip for a growing army of consumers who embrace paradox and are bored by one-note brands, said Chip Walker, global director of thought leadership for Young & Rubicam. “This group, which crosses demographic categories, tends to be digitally savvy, is fascinated by polarity and is comfortable with its own contradictory attitudes,” he said.
Patagonia’s anti-growth position, “which seems counterintuitive, makes the brand far more interesting” to this group, he added. “But if it is seen as just a marketing ploy, it could backfire horribly. The challenge is how they are going to sell goods behind this brand thought.”
Real changes are emerging at the company. A week before the initiative launched, the company began selling used Patagonia products in its Chicago, Seattle, Palo Alto, Calif., and Portland, Ore., stores. There are plans for a national rollout. In April, it started an investment fund for pro-environment startups.
Patagonia’s provocative effort is not without precedent. Its Black Friday ad from 2011 featuring the tagline “Don’t buy this jacket” contributed to a 30 percent sales bump.