Last year outdoor apparel brand Patagonia took out a full-page ad in the New York Times and other papers for Black Friday and Cyber Monday—the days around Thanksgiving that get the tills ringing loudest for US retailers—with the bold headline 'DON’T BUY THIS JACKET'. Urging consumers to buy only after making a considered choice was obviously a risky move, but despite this, its sales were still up 28 percent on Cyber Monday. And, according to chief executive Casey Sheahan, who was speaking at the Better By Design CEO summit in Auckland today, this bold attitude permeates the brand.
“As is true of all the things we can make and you can buy, this jacket comes with an environmental cost higher than its price," the ad said. "There is much to be done and plenty for us all to do. Don’t buy what you don’t need. Think twice before you buy anything.”
As a result, 24,000 people signed a pledge to buy less and buy used and Patagonia was recently ranked 14th in Fast Company's world’s most innovative companies for leading the way when it comes to ‘selling more by encouraging customers to buy less’. Casey believes consumers don’t trust companies or CEOs like they used too and the old paradigm representing greed and causing recessionary times is forcing new insights to reach consumers at a deeper level.
To do this, Patagonia is trying to create a culture of healthy living, mindful manufacturing and consumption, and transparency and responsibility. And, unlike some, it's walking the walk. For Casey, communication is everything. And he says it has fun with its advertising. Take its ‘morning stiffie’ ad, which shows what happens when underwear made from plastics hangs on the line too long (it devolves into phallic shapes, apparently).
“Storytelling is our marketing," he says. "We have such a fertile repertoire to pull from. Our storytelling almost humanises us.”
In fact, he reckons he has 50-100 stories or “episodes” he can pull out of his hat when called upon to illustrate various concepts about the company.
There’s also the Footprint Chronicles, a website where users can go to track the impact of a specific Patagonia product from design through delivery. It launched in 2007, back before the GFC and before “transparency” really caught on as a business buzzword/concept. Patagonia’s head of environmental strategy Jill Dumain says they struggled to figure out just how transparent they should be, and decided that as long as they were starting to “squirm a little in their chairs”, it was probably about the right level.
Sheahan is also pretty proud of the Common Threads initiative, in which consumers pledge not to send Patagonia threads to landfills, and the company takes back worn-out gear for recycling into new fibres or fabric, or repurposing, and sells used items via eBay, among other things (15,000 Patagonia pieces have been resold via Ebay for $500,000 so far).
It has also set up a ‘Sustainable Apparel Coalition’ to set sustainable best practices and 30 global apparel companies, including Nike and Walmart, have signed up.
It's an unorthodox move for a consumer goods company to ask consumers to think about consuming less. So is it a cheeky reverse psychology stunt? Sheahan says not. Rather, Patagonia is tapping into consumers’ consciences and encouraging them to be fully aware of their purchasing decisions and rethink whether they need to be consuming at such a high level.
“Fundamentally we want you to buy less stuff and that’s a big message. Our customers are signing up to the pledge to live their lives in a simpler fashion.”