One Retailer's Unusual Message: 'Don't Buy So Much Stuff'

As part of its business strategy, Patagonia has for years been imploring potential customers to purchase fewer things.

John Gress / Reuters

Rick Ridgeway, the vice president of environmental affairs at the outdoor apparel company Patagonia, has summited K2, traversed Borneo by foot and boat, and trekked the 300 miles from Mt. Kilimanjaro to the sea. But at the company, where impressive physical feats are practically de rigeur among employees, he is revered for a different reason.

I discovered this one recent afternoon while speaking with a copywriter for the company outside a surf shop in Brooklyn. At the mention of Ridgeway’s name, an ecstatic glow came over the copywriter’s face, as though Sir Edmund Hillary had appeared on the sidewalk wearing Velocity Running Tights and a Nano-Air vest (tagline: “Put it on, leave it on”). "Remember that ad in The Times a few years ago?” the copywriter asked, his eyes shining with admiration. “He wrote it." (A Patagonia spokesperson later clarified that the ad was the product of a collaboration between Ridgeway and other employees.)

The provocative ad, which occupied a full page of The New York Times on Black Friday in 2011, featured a picture of the company's popular R2 fleece jacket beneath the headline, "Don't buy this jacket." The rest of the copy, all six paragraphs, took the form of a brutal confession. “The environmental cost of everything we make is astonishing,” it read. For example, producing the pictured jacket required enough water “to meet the daily needs (three glasses a day) of 45 people. The journey from its origin as 60% recycled polyester to our Reno warehouse generated nearly 20 pounds of carbon dioxide, 24 times the weight of the finished product."

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.

The applicability of that strategy may seem a bit narrow, as Patagonia is an anomaly in the business world. It’s a small company, it’s privately owned, and customers pay a premium for its products: A Patagonia down sweater costs $219, compared to, say, $69.90 for the equivalent product at Uniqlo. As for its owner, Yvon Chouinard, he’s truly his own man—a 76-year-old climber and surfer who doesn't use a computer but keeps an Etch A Sketch on his desk.

Can larger, publicly-traded companies really hope to emulate an ethos like that? It’s a crucial question, because unless the Nikes and Walmarts of the world back what Chouinard has called the “movement for simplifying your life” (or unless consumers voluntarily get onboard), Patagonia’s well-intentioned efforts won’t amount to much.

It’s certainly hard to imagine Walmart, a company about a thousand times the size of Patagonia, urging customers to buy fewer things. And yet, Walmart is interested in Patagonia’s practices. A few years ago, the retailer approached Chouinard for advice on improving its environmental record—a sign, perhaps, that there is an “accelerating commitment to sustainability on a global scale,” as Ridgeway put it. Maybe, someday, customers will learn to do with less, or even stop buying new clothes altogether.

For someone whose livelihood depends on people buying new clothes, Ridgeway sounds remarkably sanguine about that future. "That's something we've talked about a little bit here," he said. "There could still likely be a role for our business in that sort of economy."