It’s 5 years to the day that Patagonia published their now iconic full-page “Don’t Buy This Jacket” advert in The New York Times on Black Friday 2011. The subversive campaign was the company’s clearest articulation yet of the second two parts of the company’s three-part mission statement: “to make the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, and use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.”
That’s 5 years the company has had to explore what its future may look like if people really don’t buy ‘that jacket’, and 5 years I’ve had to scratch my head over whether it’s a good thing if despite, or indeed because of, this advert, Patagonia’s sales have continued to rise. I attended the opening of Patagonia’s ‘pop-up’ Worn Wear Thrift Shop in London’s Shoreditch this week to find out more; where I discovered that the paradox at the root of my head scratching cannot be disentangled from the modern phenomenon of the hipster.
Hipsters may belong to the first cultural movement to start without a clear social purpose or cause. Borrowing, perhaps, the community spirit of the hippies, the contrarian nature of the punks and the consumerism of the globalised 80s and 90s yuppies, they filled their cause-void with a strange, possibly paradoxical, mix of values; the sum of which is ostensibly something quite wholesome. These new trendsetters flood their hectic social media channels with pictures and posts about #simpleliving, and yearn for local, artisanal products in built-up metropolises; emasculated, urbanised and homogenised, the hipster wants to buy back what the 20th century took away from them.
That’s if these people I’m referring to are really hipsters. You see, hipsters, like particles, suffer from the observer effect. If you label someone a hipster, they are no longer a hipster; due to the non-conformist requirement of being a hipster, you cannot be a hipster if you conform to the perceived norms of hipsterdom. In this pursuit they are restless and unidentifiable. Complicated. So what we actually know as hipsters may just be the large shadow of influence casted by an elusive, imperceptible trend-(and value)-setting sub-culture. A slower moving crowd of early adopters cherry-picking the most convenient and attractive aspects of true hipsterdom. And as I’m 99% sure Plato would say if he was alive today: having never really known the true hipsters, we take these shadows to be the real thing.
It’s these hipster-influenced people that are responsible for the bustling community of entrepreneurs — or the Flat White Economy as Douglas McWilliams refers to it — in places like Brooklyn and East London. They created the values-based companies and DIY ‘maker’ movement no-one saw coming. It was exactly because of this community that Patagonia’s country manager for the UK & Ireland , Alex Beasley, chose to host the pop-up in Shoreditch’s Village Underground.
The pop-up is likely to attract bargain hunters and the sustainably-curious alike. The shop sells high quality repaired and customised Previously Used Products for no more than £80. Customers are limited to buying one item each, and encouraged to only ‘buy what they need’. Alex told me excitedly that this was the first time they’ve been able to do a major initiative in the UK in service of the company’s mission. For Alex the Thrift Shop represents Patagonia’s continued commitment to the 5 Rs outlined in that 2011 advert; to reduce, repair, reuse, recycle and, ultimately, reimagine. Those first 4, he stresses, are in order of priority.
There was also an announcement to make too. Since 1985, Patagonia have been pledging 1% of all sales to nonprofit environmental groups as a member of 1% for the Planet®. To date that amount totals $74 million. However, today the company has pledged to give 100% of global Black Friday sales towards the initiative; they estimate this could total $2 million. $2 million dollars sent directly to what they believe is the shortest path to change; grassroots action and activism.
[update 28 Nov: They flew past this estimate and achieved $1o million in sales!]
At Volans we recently interviewed Patagonia’s Rick Ridgeway for Project Breakthrough where we are showcasing businesses whose approaches to sustainability are shifting from a focus on doing less harm to doing more good; especially those doing so by innovating their business model. Patagonia have always been way ahead of the curve in terms of doing more good; yet their business model remains the same as it always has been and the second part of their mission statement bravely implies they are causing ‘necessary’ harm.
As fellow Project Breakthrough interviewee, Francesco Starace, points out, what we perceive as breakthroughs are often long in the making, but, like earth quakes, we only notice them when they reach the surface.
I own several Patagonia products; perhaps more than I ‘need’. I like knowing that my jacket is ‘best in class’ and that my money is supporting a company dedicated to finding environmental solutions. In short, it’s one of the few brands I am proud to wear. And thanks to Patagonia I am a recovering fast-fashion consumer. 1 day at a time. Truthfully, nothing has made me question and want to discuss our consumerist society more than that advert, or Yvon Chouinard’s book, Let My People Go Surfing —the revised version of which has a foreword by Naomi Klein, which is all the co-signing you need to trust the authenticity of Yvon’s message. Yet, I attended the Thrift Shop impatiently expecting to see a clear path to a breakthrough in Patagonia’s business model; where, for example, they had found a fully circular way to offer their product as a service. The sort of circular business model innovation we’ve seen emerging at companies like Philips Lighting.
But as my colleague Richard Roberts highlighted in a recent blog, often our behaviour must change before innovations can propagate, and to Patagonia’s credit no-one is doing more to change consumer behaviour than they are. As Alex said at the shop’s opening, he’d prefer people to be ‘owners of their products rather than consumers.’ This initiative, and others happening this week in London, are about changing our behaviour and relationship with repairing and reusing products. The repaired or pre-used garments often come with new quirks and flourishes that make them unique — like the addition of Patagonia’s new WornWear patch. The shop is in fact, I must add, also a new business model; albeit a ‘pop up’, insubstantial one.
We should be owners of our products, not consumers.
Who else, but the hipsters, or shadow-hipsters, of East London, of which (TWIST) I am one of, would proudly buy into that patch? The patch that represents the values of reusing and repairing which we valued before we all started ‘buying into things’ .
And it is with this head-scratching paradox that Patagonia is beginning to change our behaviour around product ownership, so that it may one day reimagine it’s business model to be one where they permanently and substantially play a role in helping costumers to reduce, repair, reuse and recycle the best built products.