Patagonia Claims to Sacrifice Profits for Social Responsibility

Granola clothing brand Patagonia‘s success tells the tale of a company that turned corporate social responsibility into big profits, but now they’ve launched a campaign called “The Responsible Economy” designed to convince anyone who’ll listen that they care more about the former than the latter.

Oh, really?

The ad on the left appeared in The New York Times during Fashion Week, and it’s just the latest step in Patagonia’s ongoing drive to define itself as the very antithesis of what it really is—a big, popular company that recently celebrated its 40th year spent selling pricey outdoor wear.

The point of this ad was to highlight a new initiative that fits within the larger campaign by giving customers store credit to trade in old clothes before the company “reconditions” them and sells them as used or “worn ware.”

Here’s proof they’re not messing around:

The “Responsible Economy” press release lists several of Patagonia’s environmental firsts, but the strategy runs far deeper. The Cleanest Line is one of the more credible company blogs out there, and the “Worn Wear” site gives customers around the world a chance to showcase their ridiculous 70’s hairdos and the incredibly durable Patagonia products that they’ve worn for decades. It’s a great example of UGC doubling as brand journalism, and it highlights the two key points of Patagonia’s identity: high-quality, long-lasting clothing that is as environmentally friendly as it can possibly be.

This isn’t a new angle for the company, which has always partnered with advocacy organizations and other retailers like “Common Threads” sponsor eBay. During the 2011 holiday season it ran a campaign that told consumers “Don’t Buy This Jacket“; copy let the public know that “the environmental cost of everything we make is astonishing” before detailing exactly what it takes to create the product pictured.

Yes, this latest move is a publicity campaign. But it’s working: over the last two years Patagonia’s profits have jumped 38% despite the fact that the brand takes every available opportunity to tell customers to “buy less.”

A less credible brand would have a hard time positioning itself as the greenest on the block, but Patagonia has done it year after year by dedicating nearly all its energy to perfecting a single message.

The fact that profits continue to roll in might just be a happy coincidence.