On November 25th of this year – Black Friday – the outdoor clothing retailer Patagonia broke rank with other retailers. The Ventura, California based company placed a full page ad in the New York Times with a picture of one of the retailer’s jackets and the headline “Don’t Buy This Jacket”. Underneath lay a detailed accounting of the amount of carbon released and water used to make a single jacket, pointing out:
“…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…Don’t buy what you don’t need.”
On November 28th – Cyber Monday – they broadened their appeal stating in an e-mail blast:
Cyber Monday, and the culture of consumption it reflects, puts the economy of natural systems that support all life firmly in the red. We’re now using the resources of one-and-a-half planets on our one and only planet…Think twice before you buy anything…join us in the fifth “R,” to re-imagine a world where we take only what nature can replace.
Naturally, the internet exploded.
The gossip blog Gawker called the ad, the company, and all of those who wear Patagonia clothing “sanctimonious” adding that advertisements like this were “the reason people think liberals are smug.”
Some commenters suggested that if Patagonia was so insistent on people purchasing less, they should simply close down their stores. Others were torn between believing in the sincerity of Patagonia’s environmental appeal and dismissing it as a particularly brilliant bit of brand positioning. Wrote AdWeek (emphasis my own):
“This is strong stuff, and complicated, too. As with almost any environmental appeal from a big corporation, the ad is, of course, hypocritical. Patagonia isn’t totally altruistic. It’s a company, it wants to grow, and it will continue to harm the environment in the process. Yet this isn’t green-washing. It comes off as a genuine attempt to get people to start thinking about sustainable consumption.”
Can we get a large portion of missing the point?
Every living thing consumes – grass uses sun, water, and soil to grow, which in turn feed the antelope, which are then consumed by lions who, when they die, return to the earth where they nourish the soils which provide for the grass. To borrow a cliché from a certain Disney film – it’s the circle of life. What our society has done, however, is to separate our consumption from the effects of our source material tipping the scales into over-consumption and broad environmental collapse.
Patagonia is asking us to take a step back and recognize this.
What’s interesting in all of this debating as to whether or not Patagonia is being smug, clever, or both – and I for one think Patagonia is being sincere – is that nobody seems to be addressing, Patagonia’s main point – that we’re extracting, manufacturing, and consuming so many goods that it’s harming the planet and ultimately harming us. Nor are they discussing Patagonia’s solution – that the only way to stem this tide of environmental damage is if we collectively consume less. In fact, Ad week’s statement “It’s a company, it wants to grow” actively contradicts Patagonia’s point and the company’s position.In this 2004 essay entitled Don’t Buy This Shirt unless You Need It, Yvon Choiunard, the company’s founder says:
At Patagonia, we are dedicated to abundance. We don’t want to grow larger, but want to remain lean and quick. We want to make the best clothes and make them so they will last a long, long time. Our idea is to make the best product so you can consume less and consume better.
In other words in a market place in which a company is considered dead in the water if it isn’t constantly growing, Patagonia has rejected the idea that growth in and of itself is the goal. And it’s asking Americans to do the same.
No wonder some people are mad.
Those of us who care for the planet, however, are happy that someone- a corporation no less – is bringing this kind of discussion into the public sphere. And we’re quietly celebrating by not buying anything.