Patagonia Takes Fashion Week as a Time to Say: 'Buy Less, Buy Used'

In a novel bid to lower the environmental impact of its products, outdoor-gear maker Patagonia is telling its customers to "Buy less, buy used." To make it easier for them to do so, the Ventura, Calif.–based outfitter set up an online marketplace in collaboration with eBay.

The tie-up marks a first for eBay, as the auction site's first-ever venture where its listings are available via another company's web presence. Used goods can be listed on either site show up at both.

An auction function may not sound revolutionary in the retail world, but Patagonia's broader agenda here is an unorthodox, perhaps even radical, act for the fashion industry.

Indeed, unveiled in New York last night, against the backdrop of fashion week -- that annual blitzkrieg of "toss those togs from last season, here's what to buy now" -- Patagonia's program points in the opposite direction.

"This program first asks customers to not buy something if they don't need it," said Yvon Chouinard, Patagonia's founder and owner, in a prepared statement. "If they do need it, we ask that they buy what will last a long time -- and to repair what breaks, reuse or resell whatever they don't wear any more. And, finally, recycle whatever's truly worn out."

As anyone who has looked on in awe at the long lines of customers snaking through H&M to snap up $11 bikinis or $8 tops, the norm elsewhere in the fashion world has been towards clothes as low-cost, disposable commodities.

To take part in the auctions, customers are asked to take a formal pledge, "to be partners in the effort to reduce consumption and keep products out of the landfill or incinerator," Chouninard said.

The move entails risks for Patagonia, to be sure. It makes no money on the used transactions, though eBay earns standard commissions. The program has the potential to cannibalize sales of new gear, as buyers postpone purchases of new goods, or look for used alternatives.

Yet with sales of $400 million in 2010, and likely to grow by 25% this year, according to the Wall Street Journal, Patagonia has leeway to try. It's a move that few listed companies could have entertained. Talking to the Wall Street Journal's Stu Wu, Chouinard acknowledged that, as a private company, Patagonia is uniquely situated to experiment. "[Chouinard] doesn't have any shareholders or other interests to please... 'I'm in business for different reasons,' he says. 'I've made all the money I could possibly need.'"

Talk of reducing sales is a sure way to get your run-of-the-mill CEO fired. Yet Patagonia has been pursuing an agenda of the three Rs of waste reduction -- reduce, reuse, and recycle -- for many years. "Reuse" and "recycle" have proved to be doable. The company has been repairing gear since its beginning -- it increased its repair staff to reduce turnaround times, in advance of this announcement -- and annually recycles many tons of Patagonia gear from around the world.

The "reduce" goal has proved more elusive, though. At the New York event, Rick Ridgeway, Patagonia's vice president of environmental programs and communication remarked for companies, "[Reduce] is thorniest one of all."

He continued: "If we aim to reduce our impact, we have to reduce the amount of stuff Patagonia sells. We have to tell customers to buy stuff only when you really need it. This is an experiment. We'll see how it goes."

Next page: Annie Leonard weighs in on smarter consumption