Patagonia Launches ‘Responsibility’ Initiative

The brand's launch of The Responsible Economy campaign aims to start a worldwide discussion that will result in political action.

NEW YORK — Beyond encouraging consumers to shop responsibly and upcycle any old clothing, Patagonia’s launch of The Responsible Economy campaign aims to start a worldwide discussion that will result in political action.

Vice president of environmental affairs Rick Ridgeway said, “By 2050, our planet will be 300 to 500 percent beyond its capacity to renew itself. You don’t need an M.B.A. to know that’s bankruptcy.”

Building on its 40-year-old environmentally minded reputation, the Ventura, Calif.-based company’s objective is “to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.”

During a press conference Tuesday morning at the company’s store in the Meatpacking District here, Ridgeway mapped out the plan with director of environmental strategy Jill Dumain and Vincent Stanley, coauthor of “The Responsible Company” with Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard.

The trio spoke at length about the brand’s numerous new initiatives, including a partnership with Ifixit.com to repair used clothes, designated areas in select Patagonia boutiques to sell used clothes bought back from consumers and plans to become one of the first American outdoor apparel companies to introduce Fair Trade certified garments for fall 2014.

Having launched the Common Threads Partnership, which invites customers to embrace the five Rs — reduce, repair, reuse, recycle and reimagine — Patagonia will promote the idea that everyone needs to consume less, use resources more productively and innovate faster. In recent weeks, the brand has run a “Better Than New” ad campaign to plug reselling used Patagonia apparel. After testing the concept of selling used merchandise in its Portland, Ore., store, Patagonia will start doing that in four more boutiques, with additional locations planned for the future. The brand buys back a used garment for 50 percent of the price it plans to sell it for, said Dumain, noting there are additional costs incurred for cleaning and repair. Aside from making the brand more accessible to consumers, the “Worn Wear” program can show first-time buyers how a garment’s quality is likely to hold up a few years down the road, she said.

“Some people are asking, ‘Are we shooting ourselves in the foot?’ Naturally, any organization is going to have that response, but this is new ground. You can’t point to another company and say, ‘Oh, look what they did.’ We’re kind of in a leadership position, and we all have to grow,” Stanley said.

To loop consumers into the discussion on its Web site, Patagonia defines a responsible economy as “one that cultivates healthy communities, creates meaningful work and takes from the earth only what it can replenish. It’s one where all the indicators currently going in the wrong direction — CO2 emissions, ocean acidification, deforestation, desertification, species extinction, water contamination, toxic chemical release — all those things that are leading us to bankruptcy, will even out, then reverse.”

Over the next two years, executives hope to define what would make up this economy, with the help of consumers, business leaders, nongovernmental organizations and ultimately governments in various nations that impact the environment, Ridgeway said.

Patagonia had been hashing out this ideology well before the financial collapse that seized the economy five years ago, Ridgeway said. “And let’s give credit where credit is due. This thinking about a responsible economy was first launched by the Esprit Corp. in the late Eighties. Their campaign was about responsible consumption, and that had its roots in the very leading-edge thinking about these issues that go all the way back to the Sixties and Seventies with landmark publications like ‘The Limits to Growth.’”

Noting that Patagonia will run its Responsible Economy campaign for a minimum of two years, Ridgeway said there are already conversations taking place within the company that this is something that will possibly last a lot longer.

“Indeed, there are some people in the company asking whether this particular campaign becomes the framework for the business ever more because there is no simple beginning or end to this,” he said. “We’re looking long term at a potential shift in the way that business is done on the planet earth. And when you look at it from that level, you realize it can’t be a conversation just with our customers, or with those of you in journalism or with other business leaders. It has to be a conversation with all those people and ultimately with all the governments that are running the civil societies on our planet, because the real responsibility lies there,” said Ridgeway.

Afterward, Ridgeway said Common Threads Partnership members are starting to chat casually about the prospect of a responsible economy. The apparel industry is prime for such change, and there need not be any disconnect with designer sportswear firms, he said.

“This idea of investing in durability has to include classic design,” Ridgeway said. “I was telling one of my employees how my wife was one of the early employees at Calvin Klein, I think she was employee number six, and how Calvin and Barry Schwartz built the whole company based on quality and longevity. That was the foundation of the whole company. Now our daughters who are in their late 20s and early 30s are still wearing the [Calvin Klein] clothes my wife had from that time. It looks as good as it did 30 or 40 years ago. That is completely consistent with everything in the Common Threads Partnership.”