As Adweek and other observers pointed out at the time, the ad was a brilliant publicity stunt, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it was insincere. Long before “environmental sustainability” became a corporate buzz-phrase, Patagonia was pioneering many of the practices that now fall under that rubric, such as using recycled fabrics and sourcing cotton from organic growers. Now, with companies from Walmart to Nike beginning to follow its lead, Patagonia is coming to terms with a difficult truth: Those efforts aren’t enough. “No matter how many sustainability initiatives we implement, the trends are showing they are insufficient,” said Ridgeway. “When you look at these long-term trends, you can't help but conclude that somehow, some way, consumption is going to change—and it's going to have to go down.”
The clothing company recently embarked on another effort to persuade people to buy fewer clothes. In April, an old Dodge truck with a camper made of recycled wine barrels set off on what Patagonia has dubbed the “Worn Wear Tour.” Looking something like a wooden boat on wheels, with a row of portholes along the flank, the truck stopped at trailheads, at farmers’ markets, and outside of coffee shops across the country, spreading the company’s anti-consumerist gospel while, of course, serving as a clever advertisement for the company itself.
In the back of the truck was a small repair shop. Two employees from Patagonia’s facility in Reno, Nevada, sat inside with sewing needles and spools of brightly colored thread, mending battered gear. Their services were provided free of charge to anyone who showed up with a damaged garment from Patagonia—or from any other company, for that matter. I visited the truck at its stop in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where I witnessed a passerby jealously eyeing the jackets hanging outside the truck, burnt and torn but still beautiful. She said she wished she had something in need of fixing.
The consumerist instinct won’t be easily dulled, but Patagonia does seem to be trying. The Worn Wear Tour is part of the company’s larger pool of efforts to get customers to cut down on buying clothes. A section of its website features customer testimonials on the durability of specific Patagonia items. (“I purchased this jacket in 1972 because I needed to stay warm outside when I was paid 10 cents a mile by a professor at the University of Tennessee to hike the Great Smoky Mountains and pick up bear scat for analysis.”) And the company offers free repairs year-round if you bring the damaged item back to the store. It has also invested in Yerdle, an app that allows people to give away worn clothes and other used items in exchange for credit on a marketplace where other users are doing the same.
There isn't much data showing the effectiveness of these endeavors, but Ridgeway sounded confident that the company’s stance against unnecessary consumption would be good for business in the long run, thanks to Patagonia’s reputation for making garments that last. “If there are people that will only buy durable products, then we're going to succeed as a business even if the number of jackets being worn and thrown away starts to go down,” he said.