Pure Genius

Patagonia pleads: Buy only what you need

Posting in Education

The outdoor apparel retailer and eBay team up for the Common Threads Initiative, an online marketplace for used Patagonia merchandise that asks customers to pledge less consumption, more resale and recycle.

Photo: Jeff Johnson

Patagonia last week launched its Common Threads Initiative, a partnership with eBay that asks customers to buy less, buy better quality, and reuse, repair, resell and recycle more. The Common Threads online storefront allows consumers to buy and sell used Patagonia clothing through eBay (a company that reminds us, “the greenest product is the one that already exists”), while Patagonia promotes the merchandise on its site, with zero commission.

The Ventura, Calif.-based outdoor apparel company—known for products that survive extreme environments and usually outlast our need for them—has been recognized for its environmental stewardship and is perhaps the first major retailer encouraging its customers to consume less. Vice President of Environmental Initiatives Rick Ridgeway says at a time when there are too many people buying too many things and impacting the planet too much, business as usual is not an option. “Reduced consumption,” he says, “ is a requirement.”

Ridgeway, an award-winning filmmaker, author and photographer, was a member of the first American team to summit K2 and has achieved countless other adventures. Naturally, he donned Patagonia apparel during these expeditions, and he is one of the first to have listed his beloved gear on the Common Threads website. The storefront allows sellers to supplement their listings with the J. Peterman-esque stories behind their parkas or pullovers. “We had to walk about 300 miles with no way of resupply,” Ridgeway wrote with his sale listing. “I wore this jacket and pants for nearly the entire trek.”

I talked with Ridgeway the day after Common Threads was launched.  Excerpts of our conversation are below.

So Common Threads is like a virtual yard sale of Patagonia gear—with a social message. Is that accurate?

I hadn’t thought about that phrasing, but that’s exactly what it is.

How did the program come about?

It’s our company’s response to what we continue to see as a growing environmental crisis. Patagonia is a private company, and as our founder Yvon Chouinard says, we get to do what we want. We really do feel if the national and global economy isn't shifted quickly toward a more sustainable model, we are heading over the cliff.

The crisis is that there are too many people using too much stuff that has too much of an impact on the planet. We can’t do much about too many people, but we can do something about the stuff and the impact. We decided that our response would be stronger if we included our customers. Both the manufacturers and users of stuff have responsibility--it’s mutual. So we hatched this idea of reaching out to our customers with a partnership where they would join us to take joint responsibility for the footprint of stuff along its lifecycle.

So we organized this around the existing lexicon of the four 4 Rs—reduce, repair, reuse and recycle.

  1. Reduce: We’ll make products that last a long time and don’t go out of style right away. We’re asking customers when they need something to buy a product that will last a long time and--most controversial--we're the first or one of the only companies asking our customers to think twice before they buy a product. It’s going to be essential to reduce consumption.
  2. Repair: On our end, we’re offering a robust repair program that will turn around products in 10 days.
  3. Reuse or Resell: We are asking customers to clean out their closets and garages of Patagonia products they’re no longer using and put them back in circulation. So we reached out to the largest marketplace on the planet for used stuff—eBay—to build a marketplace both on eBay and Patagonia.com. When you go onto eBay and take the Common Threads pledge, then at no charge and no commission, Patagonia will co-list products on our website and leverage the exposure. The beta version will be live for three or four weeks and is available for customers to use.
  4. Recycle: We’re asking our customers to bring us worn out items, and we’ll recycle them using the best technology available, depending on the material. We’ve developed machines that allow us to have a closed-loop recycling process for polyester, which we use for most of our fleece. The machines have a hamper. You throw the clothes in on one end and out the other end comes polyester nodules that are woven into yarn. That is made into clothes that are identical to those with virgin fiber, but they capture the petroleum used in making that fiber in a closed loop. It reduces the energy used to make virgin fiber by 75 percent. Eighty to 90 percent of our products are recycled using different technologies.

To recycle, do customers have to bring the clothes back to a Patagonia store?

They can bring it to one of our stores or mail it back. But we’re trying to train our customers to understand that if you have a worn out item, don’t load it in your SUV and drive it across town to drop it off. That’s a good example of the training and education that needs to happen for our customers and ourselves.

When you did your homework and planned this initiative, and when you thought about how it would affect sales, what did you come up with?

We couldn’t come up with anything because no one has ever done this before—asking customers to buy only what they need. We’re entering new territory. So we don’t know.

At Patagonia, many of us are outdoor athletes. I’m a mountaineer. In mountaineering, you have to do your homework and research, but eventually you have to commit and figure it out as you go along; that’s what we’re doing here.

What we do know is that business as usual is not an option. Reduced consumption is a requirement. We’re perplexed why more businesspeople aren’t coming to the same conclusion. What we don’t know is how it’s going to work its way out in global business. But it has to.

Don’t people get really attached to their Patagonia gear?

People get really attached. They have stories that go along with their Patagonia clothes, so we’re encouraging them to tell the stories on the Common Threads storefront. I cleaned out my closet and had a jacket and pants I wore in 2002 when I crossed northwestern Tibet following the annual migration of an endangered species called the chiru (Tibetan Antelope). It was a frozen wasteland of ice. I wrote and published an article in National Geographic and told people if the garment sells, I will donate the proceeds to the Wildlife Conservation Society, which co-manages the chiru protected area with the Chinese government. I have very fond memories of these things, but I wasn’t using them, and that’s what’s key here.

What other environmental initiatives are you working on?

The other exciting thing is a partnership with Walmart where they joined us to invite other apparel and footwear manufacturers to develop a uniform tool for measuring the environmental and labor impacts of our products. That coalition, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, is growing quickly. We now have more than 35 companies--both suppliers, manufactures and retailers. We also have NGO representation and some social labor groups.

Anything else?

Yes. We’d organized Common Threads around the four Rs, but then we added a fifth: reimagine. Reimagine world and economy where we’re taking from the planet just what it can give back and restore. Currently we’re using the resources of 1.5 planets a year. In the U.S., per capita, it’s seven planets. If the earth were a business, it would be completely bankrupt, in total collapse.

Share this

Melanie D.G. Kaplan

Contributing Editor

Melanie D.G. Kaplan is a Washington, D.C.- based journalist. She is a regular contributor to The Washington Post and National Parks Magazine. Her website is www.melaniedgkaplan.com. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure