Patagonia's approach to marketing: Then and now
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“Fast fashion” vs. “sustainable fashion”—you know one is bad, the other is good, and that more clothing brands are advertising sustainability to satisfy eco-conscious consumers.
But have you ever stopped to wonder what makes fashion sustainable?
The sustainable fashion movement began in 1962 with the publication of Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring. The book exposed the destructive effects of agricultural chemicals used to produce material goods like textiles and clothing. It was the first time anyone had scrutinized standard production processes through an environmental lens.
Since the release of Silent Spring, we’ve come to understand sustainable fashion as something that emerges from the ethical use of resources: less water, more biodegradable fabrics, less plastic packaging, natural dyeing processes, and better working conditions for people in factories.
Patagonia’s environmentalist brand strategy: Authentic or greenwashing?
While the sustainable use of resources is undeniably important when you’re “voting with your dollar”, consumers risk focusing so much on production practices that they ignore an even more destructive one: overconsumption.
Even as fashion brands become more efficient with their use of resources, emissions from textile manufacturing alone are still projected to increase by 60% over the next decade. That’s because more people are buying more goods as brands produce more to keep up with demand.
It’s a vicious cycle that will continue until people begin to buy less stuff, whether through personal conviction, supply chain disruption, or a reduction in need.
But what possible incentive would a fashion brand have to convince consumers to buy less of their products? When revenue growth is the only metric that matters, true sustainability practices that discourage overconsumption tend to take a back seat. It’s a tale as old as the first P&L.
This is why the Patagonia brand matters. When everyone else is encouraging more consumption, Patagonia is telling people to buy less. Keep reading to find out more about this oddball brand strategy and whether or not it’s authentic.
Patagonia brand timeline
Chouinard Equipment origin
1957: Yvon Chouinard starts selling hand-forged mountaineering equipment, including pitons, to climbers in Yosemite.
1957–1960: Chouinard’s improved pitons unlock big-wall climbing in Yosemite for many climbers.
1965: Chouinard partners with fellow climber Tom Frost to start Chouinard Equipment.
1970: Chouinard realizes his pitons are damaging rock faces, so he replaces them with aluminum chockstones despite pitons making up 70% of his revenue.
1970: Chouinard travels to Scotland and buys a rugby shirt for climbing; he starts importing them and selling them to other climbers.
1972: Chouinard writes his first environmental manifesto about clean climbing in a mail-order catalogue for his company, and it sets a new standard for climbing practices.
Patagonia clothing is founded
1973: Patagonia opens its first store, Great Pacific Iron Works, in Ventura, near Chouinard's blacksmith shop.
1977: Patagonia releases their signature pile fleece jacket, inspired by Atlantic fishermen who needed quick-drying, insulated clothing.
1985: Patagonia shakes up the drab outdoor apparel category with vibrant colors.
1985: Patagonia releases its iconic Synchilla Snap-T Fleece Pullover, which is made from recycled post-consumer plastic (PCP) based polyester fiber.
Patagonia's environmental messaging and action
1995: Yvon Chouinard publishes his manifesto, The Next Hundred Years, which establishes his commitment to Patagonia’s slow growth to conserve the environment.
2002: Patagonia pledges 1% of their sales to small environmental groups.
2011: Patagonia releases their “Don’t Buy This Jacket” full-page ad in the New York Times.
2013: Patagonia launches Worn Wear, their in-house repair-and-recycle program.
2017: Patagonia joins a coalition of Native American and grassroots groups to sue President Donald Trump for rescinding federal lands in Utah.
2018: Patagonia donates $10 million in tax cuts to "groups committed to protecting air, land and water and finding solutions to the climate crisis.”
2020: Patagonia suspends its Facebook advertising as part of a U.S. civil rights boycott movement.
2021: Patagonia stops producing corporate branded clothing
Patagonia’s clean climbing origins
Patagonia was founded by Yvon Chouinard, an American rock climber and outdoorsman who invented new tools for the “clean climbing” movement.
Clean climbing is a naturalist philosophy that stresses the importance of preserving nature when climbing. “Leave no trace,” as they say—which also means removing gear and minimizing damage to rock faces.
In the 1950s, when Chouinard established Chouinard Equipment—what would later become Patagonia—it was standard practice to use soft pitons when climbing in Yosemite Valley, where Chouinard lived and climbed.
A piton is a metal spike that’s hammered into a crack or seam in rock. Climbers then attach a carabiner to the piton, and the carabiner is attached to a climbing rope. All of this equipment is vital to keeping climbers safe during an ascent.
In 1957, Yvon Chouinard started making pitons as a way to support himself while climbing. At the time, pitons were made of soft iron and they were used only a few times before discarding them.
Chouinard wasn’t a fan of this practice, so he taught himself how to blacksmith and used chrome-molybdenum steel to make pitons that were more durable. Over a decade later, more than 70% of Chouinard Equipment’s revenue was coming from the sale of these pitons.
But there was a problem: Chouinard’s pitons were damaging the cracks of Yosemite. So, even though they made up the majority of his sales, Chouinard discontinued the pitons in favor of hexes, which didn’t need to be nailed in with a hammer.
Chouinard’s first manifesto: The intersection of environmental and climbing advocacy
When Chouinard introduced hexes, they were a novel idea. At the time climbers were used to pitons, and it wasn’t yet a norm to consider their impact on the rock.
Chouinard, however, had gained the authority to shake up attitudes about climbing practices. He had done the work to create innovations in big-wall climbing and ice climbing, which occurred during what’s now known as the “Golden Age of Yosemite Climbing.”
It was on the heels of this work that Chouinard published a catalog for his equipment company that was much more than a catalog—it was a manifesto. Amidst the product descriptions and climbing advice was a call to action for all climbers: Leave nature better than you found it.
In his essay on clean climbing, Chouinard writes:
“There is a word for it, and the word is clean. Climbing with only nuts and runners for protection is clean climbing. Clean because the rock is left unaltered by the passing climber. Clean because nothing is hammered into the rock and then hammered back out, leaving the rock scarred and the next climber’s experience less natural. Clean is climbing the rock without changing it; a step closer to organic climbing for the natural man.”
And maybe most importantly: “The equipment offered in this catalog attempts to support this ethic.”
When Chouinard published the manifesto, people listened. Later, climber Steve Grossman said, “It had a lot of effect on everybody pretty much in climbing at the time in a way that’s really unparalleled. … Thinking about it now, had that not happened, and had people continued to pound pins and bust flakes off and scar and damage rock, things would be much uglier out there. It’s really pretty horrifying what would have gone on if that revolution hadn’t happened.”
Key takeaway: Chouinard’s deep expertise and community involvement granted him the authority to challenge norms in climbing. He understands his audience because he is his audience—and he was able to successfully change his product line as a result.
Patagonias ' The Next 100 Years' manifesto: Slow business growth as an environmental philosophy
Despite its noble beginnings in the 1970s, Patagonia grew just like any other business at the time: they scaled their product line, opened as many stores as possible, and focused on growing revenue. Then early on a line of shoddily-made rugby shirts in 1975 from a manufacturer in Hong Kong nearly bankrupted them.
So they threw their weight into the research and development of technical fabrics. Drawing inspiration from Atlantic fisherman and synthetic fur production.
In the late 1980s, Patagonia was back and growing by 50% every year, and had introduced three signature innovations to climbing apparel: the pile fleece jacket, bright colors, and their Synchilla Snap-T Fleece Pullover made from recycled post-consumer plastic (PCP) based polyester fiber. These fabrics are still in use today.
The company was thriving—in 1991 they projected that in 11 years Patagonia would be a billion‐dollar company.
Then the hammer came down: An economic recession in the 90s prevented banks from loaning money to companies that were growing quickly, and Patagonia was forced to lay off 20% of their staff.
Chouinard realized he had failed because he was doing business “the way everyone else does”: fast growth above sustainability. In an interview with Inc., he says, “When you do things like everybody else and things go bad, it's like being in the middle of a pack of lemmings. You go over the cliff with the others.”
So after the recession, Chouinard took the opportunity to think long term instead of short term—unusual for a company in crisis. But he confessed that, “For years I was tormented by the realization that my own company, dependent on the consumer economy, was responsible for some of this overabundance of goods.”
In 1995, Chouinard wrote his most important manifesto: The Next 100 Years. In it he describes the destructive nature of fast business growth, from exceeding the limits of Earth’s resources to the abuse of workers as a result of prioritizing the bottom line.
The manifesto is a statement on big business at its most honest: Yvon Chouinard admitted that Patagonia had not been living their verbal commitments to sustainability and stewardship. Here’s a summary of how Chouinard vowed to change course:
- Overall goal: “...grow at such a rate that we would still be here a hundred years from now.”
- Equip all Patagonia facilities with recycling and composting, edible landscaping, low‐energy‐use power, and insulation
- Centralize all stages of production to local economies
- Make clothes that last as long as possible
- Encourage customers to buy less by offering multifunctional products
- Invest in an environmental assessment program to evaluate use of resources
- Reduce Patagonia’s product line from 375 to 280 to start, with more reductions every year
- Send catalogs by request only
- Restore old buildings instead of building new ones
- Provide child care for employees with children
- Donate 1% of total sales to environmental organizations
From 1995 onward, Patagonia began to walk the walk instead of just talking the talk. But in 2011, after years of transition, they decided it was time to make a splash and show the world how they were living their values.
Patagonia's black friday 'don’t buy this jacket' ad
In 2011, the U.S. was still recovering from the 2008 recession and people were buying less. It was within this context that Patagonia launched its most famous ad campaign to date: Don’t Buy This Jacket.
Patagonia took out a full page ad in the New York Times during the Thanksgiving/Black Friday season that described the true environmental cost of its best-selling fleece jacket: “135 liters of water, enough to meet the daily needs (three glasses a day) of 45 people. … nearly 20 pounds of carbon dioxide, 24 times the weight of the finished product. This jacket left behind, on its way to Reno, two-thirds its weight in waste.”
Chouinard had committed to ongoing environmental impact assessments in his 1995 manifesto, and the ad served as a report on the results. But while the ad was meant as a slap against Black Friday’s culture of overconsumption, the campaign is still credited with the revenue growth that followed: 30% growth in 2012, followed by another 5% in 2013.
By 2017 the company reached $1 billion in sales—15 years slower than its original 1991 projection of 11 years. While Patagonia had successfully slowed its growth, it would need to do more to discourage overconsumption and live its sustainable values.
Repair as a radical act: Patagonia launches the 'Worn Wear' campaign
In 2013, Patagonia launched its resale market, Worn Wear. Now, any Patagonia customer can trade in their used clothing for credits, while used merchandise is resold on the Worn Wear website. Here’s more information about how it works:
To promote Worn Wear in 2015, Patagonia dressed up an old camper van—which they named Delia—and drove it across the country for a week, repairing customers’ old Patagonia clothing along the way.
Delia introduced Worn Wear to new customers as the road trip was shared on social, with Instagram as a primary storytelling channel. At the end of the campaign, Patagonia saw an 88% market sell-through rate, 11,075 tour attendees, and a feature story in the New Yorker about the company’s overall “anti-growth” strategy.
Patagonia’s Worn Wear van, Delia.
Worn Wear’s roots were already bound to great storytelling practices: The project had been born out of a blog strategy to tell stories about how Patagonia customers wear and repair their garments. When Delia hit the road, Patagonia continued its storytelling traditions and featured stories from people with fleece pullovers inherited from loved ones and older mountaineers who kept anoraks from their most exciting climbs.
Now Patagonia’s fleet of mobile repair shops are all over the world, with vans in Chile, France, Korea, and Japan. As of April 2020, Worn Wear had sold more than 120,000 items.
Bold political stances over advertising: Patagonia sues Donald Trump
Patagonia spends less than half a percent of revenue on advertising, favoring bold political stances—and the bold PR that comes with them—instead.
In 2017, President Trump signed an executive order to cut Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument by 85% and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument by 50%, leaving them vulnerable to industrial mining.
In response, Patagonia joined a coalition of Native American and grassroots groups challenging the order in the US District Court for the District of Columbia. The groups state that the “Antiquities Act of 1906 grants the president the authority to create national monuments, but not to reduce or rescind them.”
(If you’re wondering about the results, the NRDC reported that on October 8, 2021, “President Biden issued a new proclamation restoring Bears Ears to the boundaries established by President Obama in 2016, retaining protections for another 11,200 acres added to the monument in 2017, and restoring the Bears Ears Commission.” But the lands are still threatened by mining claims.)
Never one to waste the power of a strong message, Patagonia extended its political stance to its product, literally on the tag. On a limited-edition pair of shorts, in tiny print, Patagonia says: “Vote the Assholes Out”. The tag went viral on Twitter with messages of approval.
But the move wasn’t one born solely out of emotion—Patagonia knows its data, too. In 2018, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that outdoor recreation accounts for 2% of the U.S. economy. In 2019, the National Park Service reported 327 million visits, a number that has been steadily rising for years with the pandemic as an accelerant.
Key takeaway: Know your audience and your data so well that taking a strong political stance isn’t the risk you think it might be. Patagonia trusted national trends and their customers’ love of the outdoors, and they weren’t afraid to alienate people who disagreed with their strong stance. As a result, the Patagonia community is stronger—this time, against a common enemy.
The end of the silicon valley uniform: Patagonia shuts down corporate branding
A few years later, in 2021, Patagonia took its bold stances one step further by banning certain companies from their corporate branding options.
Patagonia had unofficially become the uniform of silicon valley founders, finance bros, and anyone working tech. From Jeff Bezos to Tim Cook, it has become a staple in many closets of founders and tech workers.
In 2019 Patagonia decided to make a bold move and limit the companies that could create corporate clothing. At the time, the outdoor clothing company said it only wanted to work with "more mission-driven companies that prioritize the planet." It started with shutting out banks, oil companies, drilling firms, and anyone deemed hazardous to the planet.
Then in 2021, the hammer fell, and Patagonia finished the mission it started by entirely banning corporate branding. They felt that adding additional material to "brand" their products was "adding non-removable logo reduces the life span of a garment, often by a lot, for trivial reasons."
Key takeaway: Patagonia talks the talk and walks the walk. They built a brand that is about inclusion, sustainability, and protecting the planet. They didn't want to turn around and then brand their products with logos of companies destroying that planet.
The future of Patagonia marketing: Mini-documentaries and outdoor influencers
In 2017, Patagonia collaborated with George Fisher, a major outdoors retailer, to boost brand awareness in the UK. The partnership hit so many marks it makes you think Patagonia’s marketing team is just as efficient as the company’s use of natural resources—it’s a storytelling documentary produced with a local company that features climbing influencers Pete Whittaker and Robbie Phillips.
This is Patagonia’s content strategy in a nutshell: Tell stories that feature respected members of the outdoor sports community. Sure, influencers may be wearing Patagonia apparel, but other than that their products are barely mentioned.
And that makes people want to watch. The George Fisher documentary reached more than 134,000 people and, over time, captured a retargeting audience of more than half a million.
Now, Patagonia regularly engages with what they call “Global Sports Activists”: trail-runners, climbers, surfers, and fly fishers. Ambassadors test and refine products, and they make recommendations on whether or not products can withstand extreme conditions.
But most importantly, Patagonia is investing in long-form video content that tells the stories no one else wants to tell. Their most recent documentary, for example, is a feature length film that tells the story of Lor Sabourin, a trans climber in the sandstone canyons of northern Arizona.
To understand the film’s impact, here’s the top comment on the YouTube video:
“as a trans nonbinary climber who is mentally struggling, this film is so valuable and beautiful. thank you so much for making it. thank you thank you thank you”
What better response could Patagonia ask for?