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Brand Spotlight: Patagonia & Marketing for a Sustainable Future

In 2018, Patagonia changed their official mission statement.

“We’re in business to save our home planet.”

It is certainly a powerful proclamation. But how do global brands that specialise in the outdoors respond to increasing threats of environmental danger? How does Patagonia aim to achieve this frankly monumental ambition? And - how are they setting an example for other companies to follow suit?

We’re in the business of marketing ourselves. That being said, looking into how alternative brands approach their branding strategy can be an enlightening way to determine what works and what doesn’t. The Ohseio brand spotlight gives us a chance to take a look at some industry leaders in their respective fields. One particularly pressing matter on our minds right now is one that we should all be thinking about: Sustainability. We’re taking a glance at exactly how Patagonia have cemented their name as a global brand in support of the sustainability movement; and whether they really are making the efforts they proclaim, or whether there is a merely performative element to the work they do (we hope not).

Committed to the Environment

Unafraid to speak out: Patagonia’s wild side.

Founded in 1973 by American environmentalist Yvon Chouinard, Patagonia has become a recognisable and internationally renowned brand since its inception. Specialising in outdoor gear and clothing, it is a trusted and respected company, having been embraced by all manner of adventure seekers. Swimmers, hikers, rock climbers, surfers - from the highest mountain tops to the deepest oceans, Patagonia has made a notable mark on several generations of explorers and consumers. And as of 2021, they are showing no signs of slowing down.

Sustainable Sustainability Poem by Patagonia. We're all screwed. So don't tell us that. We can imagine a healthy future. Because the reality is. It's too late to fix the climate crisis. And we don't trust anyone who says. We need to demand a liveable planet. Because we don't have a choice. (Now read from last sentence to 1st sentence.)
A 2020 poem by Patagonia. Read it bottom up too.

Patagonia hasn’t exactly been shy to the word ‘activism’. As far back as 1985, the company has committed at least 1% of its annual sales to environmental groups, prioritising those that they see as “promoting environmental conversation and sustainability.” According to their fiscal 2019 report, they have given $116,000,000 to support environmental work since 1985.

Admittedly, labelling yourself as a genuine, eco-friendly, multimillion-dollar company isn’t an easy task. Many consumers may meet these claims with a cold scepticism, labelling such words as no more than shrewd 21st Century PR. Indeed, it can often lead to brands contradicting themselves; demanding and championing change, yet showing little to no signs of developing their business infrastructure or outlook to authenticate their claims. By attempting to gain consumer trust in this way, brands can often lose it.

New goals for a new world.

Increasingly, the public are asking global companies to go further. Claims that brands recycle most of their in-store receipt paper are simply not enough anymore. Often, they end up being just that – unproven claims. Consumer’s views are developing fast, and their expectation for brands to develop alongside them holds a significant pressure for those in the marketing industry. Those that are willing to contribute to the debate fare well, whereas those willing to go further and be leading figures in this field fare even better.

Patagonia have been paying attention for some time now. In 2019, they set themselves a monumental target - that by 2025 they aim to be carbon neutral. Undoubtedly, this is an extraordinary step that will significantly reduce their environmental impact.

Their willingness to set themselves this goal is a great sign, not just for what it will mean for the brand themselves, but for the potential consequences such promises may have across the industry; adding pressure on other companies to not rest on their laurels too often and act accordingly.

Sustainability as an Investment for the Future

The economic potential in solar power.

The economic potential in solar power is literally endless. Clean power is paving the way for a future built on sustainable energy. It is perhaps the most singular difference companies can make to lighten their ecological footprint, and Patagonia are clearly keen for a world without the damaging energy sources of coal and oil.

In 2014, they invested into a multimillion-dollar solar power start-up fund - a great example of how business can promote environmental health as opposed to only damaging it. Tin Shed Ventures are aiming to redefine capitalistic thinking. They look towards the realignment of the relationship between business and the environment, setting out to inspire more responsible approaches to the creation of products. It’s working - one of the businesses involved in the scheme have been producing skateboards made from recycled fishnets.

Sustainability as a profitable venture...

Patagonia are setting an example to others, doing their bit to change how businesses may shift towards seeing solar power as a profit maker in its own right. For real progress, sustainability must be more than social consciousness. We’d like to see companies take heed of the social conscience and their reckonings with little imperative other than their moral compass. However, if we really want to see change, sustainability must be seen by businesses as an opportunity for financial gain. Companies are now finally beginning to change their mindset regarding energy, and Patagonia are right there at the front of the pack.

How Patagonia Sources Materials

A fluffy white sheep looks into the camera. How Patagonias Materials are Sourced - Brand Spotlight - Patagonia & Marketing Towards a Sustainable Future of Fashion

Sourcing materials generates its fair share of environmental impact, both in transportation and manufacturing. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions alone are a challenge for international brands like Patagonia, but the complications do not end there. The methods used in sourcing goods, such as wool, throw into question the treatment and wellbeing of animals. This can be often overlooked when discussing environmental protection, both by companies and customers, though animal welfare is just as significant an environmental issue as carbon neutrality.

The mulesing contradiction.

In 2005 and again in 2015, Patagonia found itself in a controversy regarding the mulesing of sheep. Mulesing refers to the removal of wool-bearing skin from the buttocks of the sheep, in order to avoid a parasitic infection known as fly-strike. However, this procedure is often performed without the use of any anaesthetic, and the resulting pain felt by the sheep often severe. Whilst so many may wish to turn a blind eye to practices such as these, it does nothing to lessen the unavoidable truth; mistreatment of animals is abuse, plain and simple, and if the system isn’t working for them, it isn’t working for us. It is unethical and does nothing to promote sustainability, only poisoning the well and our collective morality along with it. What are our clothes worth if they are made from the suffering of living creatures, and what are we worth if we are willing to ignore it?

PETA, The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, condemned Patagonia for their practice of mulesing. Responding to these claims of the inhumane treatment of animals, Patagonia initially made the welcome changes to split from their Australian providers for Ovis 21 in South America. It’s worth noting this caused problems for Patagonia to react this way, including a major delay to a product launch of merino base layers. However, ten years later PETA realised online a video that show the graphic nature of how sheep were being continued to be treated by their Ovis 21 farmers.

Patagonia acknowledged this in a blog post on their website, rightfully taking responsibility for their part played in this, as well as giving their thoughts on the matter. Claiming that whilst they were able to establish that no mulesing took place at Ovis 21 farms, they were unaware of the treatment shown in PETA’s video. It was a step forward to see a company as large as Patagonia not only responding to these claims, but also demonstrating that they are welcome to being held accountable by such organisations.

The power in admitting to imperfection.

Soon after, Patagonia severed all ties from Ovis 21. It is unfortunate that by trying to distance themselves from one form of harmful treatment to animals, they had ended up caught up in another. Despite this, their attempts to change and find new solutions is a valuable asset. Progress isn’t always linear, and Patagonia have not only acted when it mattered, but shown they are able to learn lessons from these failures. Whilst this won’t fix everything, it is fantastic to see a company being more honest and open with their consumer base, instead of attempting to shift the blame to their suppliers. They were able to admit when they had got it wrong, take their rightful responsibility and evolve as a company as a result. Not every endeavour can be a success, but perhaps every lesson learnt can prove more valuable in the long term.

Recycled, Repaired, Reused

Patagonia Founder: Yvon Chouinard. © PATAGONIA

Patagonia’s roots are in the reusable. As a young climber in the late 1950s, Chouinard began making his own hardware - using his skills as a blacksmith with unwanted materials from a junkyard. It’s fitting that today, in 2021, that the company allows its customers to return its clothing that is no longer wanted for recycling.

Encouraging activism and engaging in thought.

Instead of discarding their clothing and cursing it to landfill, Patagonia are encouraging customers to do their bit. This is something worth remembering when scrutinising large companies and their relationship with the environment. It not just up to cooperations to make changes, we as customers must engage with the process too, asking ourselves some difficult questions along the way.

Do we really need that third pair of climbing boots, just in a different colour? Do we need to order items that will require international shipping when we could shop and source locally? And do we even look after the clothes we do have to begin with?

Using marketing as a tool to facilitate changes in consumer behaviour.

When it really comes down to it, that's what marketing is anyway: a tool we use to prompt and encourage changes in the consumer. Usually, our goal is to facilitate changes in behaviour that make profits - that's the general idea of marketing something. Patagonia, however, have been known to urge people not to buy their clothes.

In 2011, Patagonia put out a surprising ad to commemorate ‘Black Friday’. Posted in The New York Times, it caught readers attention with its seemingly contradictory title:

Blue Patagonia Jacket Sustainability Advertisement Featuring "Don't Buy This Jacket" in Black Type. Common Threads Initiative for Reduce, Repair, Reuse, Recycle by Patagonia
Patagonia's notoriously effective 'Don't Buy This Jacket' campaign. © PATAGONIA

The advertisement was part of Patagonia’s Common Threads initiative, encouraging customers to reduce waste, reuse and repair clothes, and also recycle gear that had come to the end of its life. The jacket shown was, notably, the R2 Jacket, which was actually one of Patagonia’s biggest sellers. The ad went to great lengths in being honest about the extent of resources it takes for them to produce just one jacket: 135 litres of water, 20 pounds of carbon dioxide.

Genuine plea? Or performative promotion campaign?

"The implications of their famed advertisement campaign, and whether it may have had some reverse psychological effect on the consumer, making them do exactly the opposite and actually go out and buy the jacket instead - remain up for debate. However, it is a clever tactic. On one hand, the immediate reaction is to think their intentions for the planet are good. On the other hand, it may have been a successful experiment based on the consumer decision-making process. We will never know the original intentions behind it. But we do know that it was a unique marketing tactic at the time." - Indy, Ohseio Founder

Patagonia, despite whether their campaign had good intentions or not, does seem genuinely eager for us – and their products - to avoid the landfill wherever possible. Their website features an extensive section focused solely on product care, aiming to help keep your garments and gear in action for as long as possible. The mere idea of doing this in an industry so saturated with fast fashion brands is somewhat revolutionary, with guides on how to fix a button and mending a broken zipper, actually reducing the amount of revenue Patagonia has the potential to make with new sales. This ‘make do and mend’ ideology is certainly in keeping with Patagonia’s spirit, and a habit we would do well as consumers to employ ourselves.

The environmental cost of ‘fashion’ is undeniable, though this is something Patagonia are keen to raise awareness about themselves. They have also indeed admitted that there is much more to be done.

"As it turns out, encouraging customers not to buy what they don’t need was a strong start to what eventually become a new wave of thoughtful consumerism. Within some consumers, at least, particularly those such as Gen Z, we have seen an influx in the popularity of secondhand clothing, charity shopping and ‘swap shops.’ Maybe their campaign was the catalyst that was needed to spur this action from younger generations, almost over a decade later?"

How Fair Pay for Workers Builds a More Sustainable Labour Market

The need for a living wage.

The clothing industry relies heavily on its labourers, yet apparel workers are still amongst the lowest paid across the globe. It’s a question many companies may wish to avoid, but the reality cannot be ignored forever; clothing companies have a social responsibility to ensure their workers are paid not only fair wages, but also have full access to safe working conditions. It’s not too much of a demanding request, rather, these qualities are a human right. The GLWC (Global Living Wage Coalition) definition of what constitutes a living wage is worth noting here:

“The remuneration received for a standard workweek by a worker in a particular place sufficient to afford a decent standard of living for the worker and her or his family. Elements of a decent standard of living include food, water, housing, education, health care, transportation, clothing, and other essential needs, including provision for unexpected events.”

A tired clothing industry worker works sewing in cramped conditions amongst an industrial sewing machine, offcuts of fabric and a tiny space.

A living wage should not be a luxury. There is no debate to be had, except in considering how we as consumers and companies can do our best to not only address this issue, but also work to bring about real change. Change for millions of workers who, as you are reading this, are stuck working long shifts in squalid conditions for a little as 3 cents per hour. As dire as this situation is (and even more so after a global pandemic where so many workers have suffered huge job losses), there are still reasons to be optimistic.

Put your money where your mouth is.

Patagonia’s website features a detailed breakdown of their commitment to this issue – a great example of a clothing company taking their corporate social responsibilities seriously. They are keen to make known they support the GLWC’s definition of a living wage, and once again, just as before, are actively encouraging their customers to stay informed. The collective power of the consumers can - and will - bring about change. But this won't happen unless we stop purchasing fast fashion items.

“Demand better practices – what you buy is what the industry will become.” – Patagonia

Fair pay for factory workers is as indispensable to sustainability as any of the previous points. Worker safety, satisfaction and security matter in the long term as much as carbon emissions do; a future built on cutting corners, inhumane labour conditions and an unregulated supply chain are just as damaging as environmental negligence. It is worth asking ourselves again, what are we worth if our comforts and luxuries flourish from ignoring unfair labour practices? After all, higher wages are often associated with increased productivity, and in the long term, a sustainable way to boost demand.

The issue of limited control over factory conditions.

Patagonia have been asking themselves these very questions. Whilst they do not own any of the factories they partner with to produce their clothing (this is the norm in the fashion industry), they are keen to avoid factories that do not uphold their same strong values. Their internal social and environmental responsibility team hold the power to veto any new partnerships with factories they deem unsuitable. It’s worth knowing that in situations such as this, Patagonia and other companies have less power than we may perhaps initially perceive. Without full ownership of said factories, they are limited in their control over them. Whilst their power here may be lacking, their influence as a global band remains strong. The factories they choose to work with or choose not to work with, can speak volumes for both parties. They may not be able to change the conditions within a factory, but brands can indeed choose not to fund their despicable treatment of workers.

Indeed, change cannot be achieved by one factory, one company or one consumer group. Fair trade must become prominent across the entire industry, championed by every company and upheld by every factory. No one is expecting Patagonia to fix this problem by themselves, and that’s not what this article is about. Instead, we highlight the good they have been working towards, and how fashion can – and should – become more sustainable, with the demand that fairer practices are implemented by a multitude of brands across the globe increasing each year.

100% of Patagonia garment workers paid minimum wage by 2025?

As of 2019, Patagonia claim that 35 percent of their factories are paying their workers, on average, a liveable wage. Undoubtedly, this number needs to rise – their commitment to making this happen is reflected in their goal that states by 2025, one hundred percent of their clothing range will be produced in factories that pay their staff a minimum wage. Despite this, after the Covid-19 pandemic, achieving this may prove an even more challenging task than the one they initially thought they were setting out with. It remains to be seen if these ambitious goals can be met within a not-so-realistic time frame. With Patagonia’s track record on various humanitarian and environmental issues, however - not to mention their truly rebellious spirit – it’s possible that they might just pleasantly surprise everyone.

The Path Forward

Ripstop Patagonia Jacket with mountain logo and colourful line stitching embroidered into the logo.

The road ahead will not be an easy one for the brand; setbacks, failure and regret will surely wait at every turn. They themselves have already learned that no ascension is flawless, or without its risks. However, if Patagonia have proven to us only one thing, it is that they are in this for the long run. As Chouinard himself puts it:

“The longer the expedition, the more that is learnt.

We cannot think of a better way to summarise Patagonia’s journey. From the 1950s junkyard of Chouinard’s youth, all the way to the 20-million-dollar solar farms of Hawaii, they have recognised the importance of a sustainable world since the beginning. Never losing sight of who they are and what sets them apart from the crowd. They have supported the natural world and, as a result, they have become champions in their own right.

Their legacy is assured. But what of the future? Climate change has the potential to rip our world apart. How we act today, not only as consumers, but as a species, will define us for long to come. Perhaps in the face of such adversity, we will assure our own legacy.

While our futures may be unclear, one thing is for certain. Patagonia’s new mission statement must become our collective goal. We must all do what we can to save our home planet. There is simply no other way. On that, I think we can all agree.

What did you think of Patagonia's "Don't Buy This Jacket" campaign?

Genuine or not? Leave a comment below, we'd love to hear your side.

This article was penned by Nate Hyde and edited by Indy. Nate is part of the dedicated team involved with our SEO & copywriting training programme, and graduated in Creative Writing and Drama with Honours from The University of Salford in 2018.

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