The Company That Wants You to Buy Less

by Wen Lee   |   October 11, 2011

Patagonia Fleece

“The Common Threads Initiative addresses a significant part of today’s environmental problemthe footprint of our stuff. This program first asks customers to not buy something if they don’t need it.”
Yvon Chouinard, Patagonia founder & owner

Wait. Really?

It may shock you to hear a multimillion-dollar company asking you to buy FEWER of its products. But that’s exactly what outdoor apparel retailer Patagonia is doing with its expanded Common Threads Initiative, launched in September.

The program focuses on what Patagonia calls the “4R”s: Reduced consumption, Repair, Resale, and Recycling:

  • Reduced consumption. Customers are encouraged to buy only what they need and to use what they own as long as possible. On its end, Patagonia vows to sell only useful products that are made to last.
  • Repair. Broken or torn Patagonia gear may be mailed to the company, and they will repair and ship it back to you within 10 business days. Patagonia’s repair service has been offered for years and there is a huge library of replacement zippers and fabrics at the ready. In 2010, the company reported repairing over 12,000 garments for customers.
  • Resale. Patagonia has partnered with Internet giant eBay to launch a new online store for customers to buy and sell used Patagonia gear. The Common Threads Initiative store on eBay has in stock hundreds of used Patagonia jackets, shirts, pants, and even dresses that anyone can purchase with a just few clicks of the mouse.
  • Recycling. When a piece of Patagonia apparel is completely worn out and no longer usable, customers may mail it back or drop it off at a Patagonia retail store. Patagonia will then recycle or repurpose the clothing free of charge. Since 2005, Patagonia has taken back 45 tons of clothing for recycling and made 34 tons into new clothes.

Through these comprehensive efforts, Patagonia argues, precious natural resources will be conserved and tons of waste will be diverted from landfills.

Central to the campaign is an online pledge inviting customers to partner with the Common Threads Initiative. The pledge is simple, quick, and painless: a mutual pledge between Patagonia (“Patagonia agrees to build useful things that last, to repair what breaks and recycle what comes to the end of its useful life”) and the customer (“I agree to buy only what I need (and will last), repair what breaks, reuse (share) what I no longer need and recycle everything else"). In the first month of the expanded program, Patagonia has already garnered over 1,000 pledges.

This all sounds very wonderful, but you may still be stubbornly incredulous that a for-profit company would do something like this. Could this be just another well-disguised greenwashing scheme? What’s in it for Patagonia?

“Honestly,” says Jessica Clayton of Patagonia Public Relations. “Whether we make money or lose money on this, we don't care. We absolutely had to come up with a way to get our customers to buy used and take care of our products so they last a long time—it’s one of the most powerful things consumers can do for our planet.”

If any clothing company is going to take this kind of radical approach to business, it’s probably Patagonia. Ever since the company was founded in the 1970s, it has been a frontrunner among private companies championing sustainability. Its many environmental campaigns include water conservation, wildlife protection, and awarding grants for environmental activism. Since 1996, Patagonia has used only organically grown cotton in its clothing line. And an interactive tool on its website called The Footprint Chronicles gives customers transparency about how and where Patagonia products are made.

Patagonia’s mission statement is particularly impressive: “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.” Yes, you read it right: Minimizing environmental impact is actually part of the company’s mission statement!

So how has Patagonia done? In 2008, the company reported sales of $270 million. Two years later, amid widespread economic recession, that number had risen to a staggering $414 million. Not bad. 

Patagonia is a shining example of a business that has apparently been able to keep strong values and make a profit at the same time. This has earned the company acclaim from numerous environmental organizations, in addition to unshakable customer loyalty. In 2007, Fortune magazine named Patagonia The Coolest Company on the Planet.

Now Patagonia has gotten so bold that they are asking customers to buy less and buy used—something that flies in the face of everything we know about running a commercial business. Time will tell whether this will decrease sales, bring in new customers, or make any difference at all. Call them crazy, but Patagonia is determined to stay the course.

“Whether or not people believe it,” says Clayton. “We’re doing it because it’s the right thing to do.” 

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