Last Friday, retailers tried to convince you to shop as much as you can, opening their stores as early as Thursday at midnight and offering large discounts. Only one retailer seemed to be in a non-party mood. On that same day, Patagonia, the outdoor apparel clothing company, advertised a full-page ad on the New York Times, showing one of their bestseller jackets with the message “Don’t Buy This Jacket”. On the ad itself Patagonia asked people to think about the environmental impacts on their consumption and “to buy less and to reflect before you spend a dime on this jacket or anything else.”
In a country where consumption has become a substantial element of its cultural identity and a major part of its economic activity, it was no surprise that this ad got a lot of attention. Some thought it was hypocrisy given that Patagonia is still interested in selling products and growing its business. Others thought it’s nothing than a smart PR stunt. And there were also those who saw it as an act of visionary leadership that should be applauded. So which one is it?
This ad didn’t come out of nowhere. First, Patagonia is a well known leader in the sustainable business space. Second, as we reported here last month, Patagonia recently launched a Common Threads Initiative, which encourages customers to buy fewer new products. As part of this campaign, which is an extension of the recycling program the company initiated in 2005, Patagonia partnered with eBay to create a new marketplace for sellers and customers to buy and sell their unwanted Patagonia clothing and gear.
In addition, Patagonia asked people to be part of the initiative and pledge to “buy only what I need (and will last), repair what breaks, reuse (share) what I no longer need and recycle everything else.” In exchange, the company agreed to “build useful things that last, to repair what breaks and recycle what comes to the end of its useful life.” The goal was to reduce excess consumption and “give the planet’s vital systems a rest from pollution, resource depletion and greenhouse gases.”
This message is a bit radical but still not totally surprising if you’re familiar with Patagonia and their mission to “build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.” This is after all the company that created the most radical and transparent form of sustainability reporting -The Footprint Chronicles. Yet, publishing the ad on the New York Times on Black Friday was a new level, even for Patagonia, as it put the campaign in the national spotlight.
So what brought Patagonia to do it? On their blog they explain:
We’re placing the ad in the Times because it’s the most important national newspaper and considered the “paper of record.” We’re running the ad on Black Friday, which launches the retail holiday season. We should be the only retailer in the country asking people to buy less on Black Friday… It’s part of our mission to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis. It would be hypocritical for us to work for environmental change without encouraging customers to think before they buy.
In other words this is about integrity, inspiring people and doing it in a smart way. And a smart way it was – when all the other retailers were struggling to get the attention of consumers, offering temptations in terms of longer hours and larger discounts, Patagonia easily stood out by providing a different message. Shedding light on the real balance sheet we should be worried about – the one that looks into our planet’s natural resources and shows we are using in average the resources of one and a half planets while we have only one, Patagonia continued its tradition of radical transparency and gave consumers some food for thought they couldn’t find anywhere else.
This ad reflects some of the ideas Kalle Lasn, the editor of the magazine Adbusters, mentioned only three days later in the same paper. His message was about the power of smart advertising to change the way people behave and think. He’s right – a smart ad in the right time and place, like Patagonia’s ad, can generate much better results than avoiding advertising just because it is in general an unsustainable tool serving unsustainable companies.
Patagonia claims there’s no ground for accusing it in hypocrisy. I agree with it. We can and should expect companies to become sustainable leaders and explore new economic models. How else can we even begin to think about having a (sustainable) future on this planet? It is also not a PR stunt because Patagonia walks the talk all year long. If anything, it is more of a smart use of the company’s marketing budget to get people thinking about sustainable consumption. I’m not sure how many people actually paid attention to it, since shoppers apparently spent a record amount of money over this Black Friday weekend, but the message is there to stay. Hopefully next year more people will take it into consideration, reflect more and buy less.
Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris, a green company working to green up the book industry in the digital age. He is also an adjunct professor in the University of Delaware’s Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics.