So was the ad a way for high-minded shoppers to justify expensive Patagonia purchases, or a genuine attempt at changing consumer culture?
If nothing else, Patagonia’s Black Friday ad was the rare kind that caught a harried reader’s attention and held it. The header, an unexpected imperative in capital letters, was qualified in the fine print below. “This is a 60% recycled polyester jacket, knit and sewn to a high standard,” it read, though not before reminding us that all clothing production contributes to environmental bankruptcy. For example, the ad pointed out, the pictured R2 jacket required enough water during the manufacturing process to “meet the daily needs of 45 people” and “generated nearly 20 pounds of carbon dioxide” on one leg of its transportation journey. Patagonia posted the same ad on its website through Cyber Monday and Emailed it to about 750,000 customers.
The ad was analyzed by the Harvard Business Review, the International Business Times, Forbes, and innumerable blogs. AdWeek named it its ad of the day for the boldness of the appeal. Gawker, meanwhile, called it sanctimonious: “You are the reason people think liberals are smug.”
Indeed, it read like a brilliant piece of reverse psychology, a self-righteous celebration of the brand cloaked in an earnest plea to rethink a culture of unchecked consumerism and its effect on the environment. The text read “DON’T BUY THIS JACKET,” but some thought Patagonia was really saying, “Purchase high-quality products from our conscious company instead of crap from evil corporations.”
“Of course we want people to buy from us,” says Christina Speed, Patagonia’s marketing director. “We’re a company that makes clothes, and we need to be profitable. But everyone needs to consume less.”
She says the campaign was inspired by a page in the 2004 Patagonia catalog that asked people not to buy a best-selling shirt. “The message is absolutely sincere. If you don’t agree with what we’re doing and the ad made you angry, then don’t buy from us.”
Not that the company is hurting for supporters. One purpose of the ad was to spread awareness of Patagonia’s Common Threads Initiative, an extension of the “reduce, reuse, recycle” mantra that guides their its (and consumers’) practices. Recently, it ramped up its repair center for quicker turnarounds and will recycle worn-out clothing into new fabric. This fall, Patgonia hooked up with eBay to facilitate the exchange of used apparel. Sellers who list Patagonia goods on eBay will get a free listing on the apparel maker's used-clothing-and-gear site.
Though few people would accuse Patagonia of greenwashing, the ad’s double-edged sentiment lead to kickback from some consumers. On the company’s Cleanest Line blog, readers said they found the message patronizing and wondered why Patagonia didn’t close stores if it was serious about boycotting the retail frenzy. Others noted that Patagonia bemoans carbon emissions while continuing to manufacture its goods overseas.
Still, Patagonia is a proven supporter of environmental initiatives. It cofounded 1% for the Planet in 2002, which donates 1 percent of annual sales to environmental causes. Roughly 1,400 companies have since joined the nonprofit (Outside is a member). They shifted to 100 percent organic cotton in 1996, long before eco-friendly materials became part of the vernacular. And it encouraged its employees to take time off to volunteer for grassroots environmental organizations, while it continued to pay full salary and benefits.