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
It's no small issue. As a reminder of the stakes, Patagonia invited Annie Leonard to the New York event for her take on the conundrum facing companies and individuals trying to do less environmental harm.
Leonard is best known as the creator and narrator of The Story of Stuff, a riveting animated documentary about the lifecycle of material goods. If you haven't seen it, take the time to do so.
Leonard's work is unarguably critical of unsustainable mass production and high-volume consumption. Understandably, few companies would be comfortable giving her center stage to remind us why we should consume less. She offered this reminder of the paradox of consumption:
We have built our material economy on a one-way, really fast consumer frenzy, turning stuff into waste. We use too much stuff, and we use too toxic stuff. And people aren't really talking about this. It's easier to talk about using less toxic stuff. We shouldn't have neurotoxins in our lipstick and carcinogens in our children's toys -- that's a no brainer. We're not there yet solving that, but at least its acceptable to discuss.
It's a lot harder to talk about the too much stuff problem. We're getting to the core of some of the fundamental flaws of our growth driven, consumer-mania economy. We start to get to really sensitive places about our relationship to stuff, and how we look to stuff to find meaning, identify or status in life. So it gets tricky to talk about reducing our consumption of stuff.
So when Patagonia called I wondered, "Are you nuts? You're actually going to tell people to don't buy a coat unless they need it? You're going to encourage used stuff to go back to the market?"… [The Common Threads Initiative] is an example of the kind of new paradigm business we need to have, that meets our needs without trashing the planet.
If Patagonia's move seems controversial, keep in mind that both companies are likely to benefit from increased exposure and reputational gains, attracting new customers interested in the pledge, and cementing the loyalty of existing buyers.
What's more, I wonder if sales may not be dented as much as it may seem. By formalizing of a secondary market for Patagonia gear, the company will capture the long-tail of demand from tentative, first-time buyers unfamiliar with of shy of the initially high prices for the company's high quality gear.
For Patagonia, the Common Threads Initiative is an effort to reframe and broaden the scope of its cradle-to-grave focus approach to manufacturing, and integrates with Patagonia's existing sustainability efforts such as Footprint Chronicles, where the company documents the life cycle of many of its products. Since 1985, Patagonia has donated 1 percent of gross sales to environmental conservation programs.
For eBay, the partnership is another step on ongoing efforts to extend and highlight the company's Green Team sustainability efforts. In 2010, the company launched eBay Box to make it easier for customers to reuse packaging. The auction house also rolled out eBay Instant Sale to give customers an easier way to sell or recycle used electronics.