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Patagonia Launching Common Threads Initiative

Patagonia pitches a recycling campaign, and even encourages consumers to think twice before they buy something new.

NEW YORK — Later this month, Patagonia catalogue shoppers will be among the first to find out about the company’s Common Threads Initiative.

Instead of just hailing the benefits of recycling and reusing clothing, the program is also meant to encourage consumers to think twice before they buy something new. “Don’t buy this jacket unless you really need it” will be one of the cautionary messages used on hangtags, posters and other in-store signage. Self-defeating as that might sound, founder Yvon Chouinard said this unconventional approach will “increase my business like crazy,” namely because the brand will cut into competitors’ sales. Over the past few years, the recession has made people more conservative about spending, more interested in long-lasting and better-quality items, he said.

“We want people to imagine our lives consuming less and living simpler lives based on what we need as opposed to what we want,” said Chouinard, whose company has donated 1 percent of its annual sales — $40 million to date — to environmental organizations for years.

The brand’s four Rs — reduce, repair, reuse and recycle — will be fleshed out in the holiday catalogue, which ships to about 1.2 million shoppers Nov. 15. To reduce, Patagonia is recommitting to making durable, multifunctional clothes that stay reasonably in fashion. Repair guarantees that if a zipper fails before a garment does, the company will fix it for free. As part of its reuse effort, the brand will help provide a way for shoppers to sell, trade or donate garments they no longer want.

During a speech at the 2010 Sustainable Textiles Conference in New York last week, Chouinard said eBay will play a role in this initiative. Approached afterward, he declined further comment, as did eBay executives, when reached later in the day.

For the recycle component, Patagonia will collect and recycle clothes in the least harmful way.

Patagonia is also still helping Wal-Mart with its environmental initiatives. The Bentonville, Ark.-based retailer was motivated to go more green after analyzing the life history of large clothing companies and retailers and determining that most do not last for more than a generation, Chouinard said. They also recognized that teenagers are much more concerned about preserving the environment than other generations were.

A consortium of large companies that account for 55 percent of the world’s apparel production is developing a sustainable fashion index along the lines of the organic standards that are used in the food industry. Within two years, shoppers should be able to walk into a store and scan a garment to see sustainability grades for energy and water use, social responsibility and other factors, Chouinard said. A Wal-Mart representative said the index would not be out for four or five years.