Patagonia & REI: The Insanity of Smart Choices

Patagonia admits its own environmental failings and suggests you don’t buy their products, meanwhile REI chooses to close its stores, including its online business for one day — the day that’s been one of their top 10 selling days.

Have these brands gone mad or are they on to something?

When Patagonia chose to place an ad in the New York Times asking people not to buy their products on Black Friday, it served to express an opinion, as Adweek states, “Patagonia declares war on consumerism gone berserk” and a point-of-view on their responsibility to the environment. In their ad, Patagonia states, “The environmental cost of everything we make is astonishing,” and went on to list liters of water used in the making of their jacket, pounds of carbon dioxide needed to transport that jacket and finished their statement by saying that a jacket unused and left behind is still two-thirds its weight in waste.

Was this simply a marketing ploy by Patagonia to capitalize on a small but growing disdain of consumerism? Perhaps, but it was also based on their long-term commitment to their cause. Patagonia had already donated over $41.5 million to grassroots environmental organizations through its “1% for the Planet” initiative by the launch of this campaign, so it’s hard to say it was just another clever marketing tactic. In an interview, Yvon Chouinard, the Founder of Patagonia, states, “I hardly own any new Patagonia stuff. I just don’t have a need for it.” He then pointed to the shirt he was wearing to say that it was over 10 years old.

Patagonia doesn’t stop there. They’ve established a “worn-wear” space in their stores where repairing product happens on-site and they’ve created a touring truck that stops in key cities and outdoor sites to repair people’s clothing — no matter the brand — to communicate their mission.

Perhaps the most surprising part of Patagonia’s 2011 declaration was its effect on sales. According to Bloomberg, sales for Patagonia grew by 40% over the following two years and according to Stock, this equalled to incremental sales of over $160 million. The cynic in all of us could agree that this declaration failed at a catastrophic level. People did the exact opposite of what Yvon Chouinard was asking them to do — but we all have to agree that this added up to pretty smart business-in-action.

Now when you look at REI’s #OptOutside initiative, you could initially question whether this is REI jumping on the Patagonia bandwagon, but even so, to shut their stores on Black Friday and to freeze online orders until the following Saturday while paying 12,000 employees for the day, is pretty ballsy. As a belief, this has been a part of REI long before Patagonia even existed. REI’s President and CEO, Jerry Stritzke, said to Forbes, “For 76 years, our co-op has been dedicated to one thing and one thing only: a life outdoors. We believe that being outside makes our lives better.” He went on to say, “Perhaps John Muir said it best back in 1901, ‘thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home.’ We think Black Friday is the perfect day to remind people of this essential truth.”

When I spoke at the BOLO Conference in Arizona, I met up with an old friend of mine, Dr. Bob Deutsch, who is a cultural anthropologist. There, he reminded me that we are in the service of the consumer’s desire to align their purchases with their values. Consumers search for attached meaning to the products they buy. This can be in direct correlation to their beliefs — for example, they may believe consumerism sucks or it can be a projection of what they want the world to see in them — that they care about the environment. His reminder is a good one because he points to a clear understanding of why Patagonia has been so successful and why REI is likely to experience the same success. They present their purpose very clearly which consumers attach themselves to. That then causes consumers to feel a strong sense of loyalty, driving them to make their next purchase.

Many brands have a purpose. It may be hidden away or not countercultural enough to create the same buzz that Patagonia and REI have managed to achieve, but it’s still worth finding and crafting a story around. In a Harvard Business Review article, the writer identifies three forms of purpose: functional, emotional and societal. What Patagonia and REI have accomplished is that they established a purpose that people relate to and want to support. At that crucial moment, they have created for themselves the maximum impact to reveal their commitment to that purpose, which is illustrated in the Harvard Business Review’s study, “Top Brands Excel When They Have a Purpose-Driven Positioning.” Purpose can be a powerful foundation in the development of an experience, which is why we will continue to push brands to identify theirs.

-Alasdair Lloyd-Jones, President & CSO of SET