Interpreting Corporate Responsibility Through a Digital Lens

PatagoniaWhile other fashion brands clamor to sell more, Patagonia’s full-page ad in The New York Times on Black Friday 2011 told readers to buy one of the company’s most popular fleece jackets. A few days later, on Cyber Monday, the company launched The Common Threads Initiative, the first branded eBay store featuring user-generated listings of used Patagonia clothing. The company’s message shocked many.

“We’re asking consumers to take a pledge and enter into a partnership with us,” explains Bill Boland, creative director for patagonia.com. “If you pledge to only buy what you need, to reuse things and give them back out when you’re done with them, we’ll promise to make clothing that lasts as long as possible. We’ll promise to repair clothing as quickly as possible. And we promise to take back clothes and find ways to recycle them into new clothing.” So far, 25,000 customers have taken the pledge.

The Common Threads Initiative grew out of an earlier digital campaign called The Footprint Chronicles. Folks in a company known for its sustainable practices and its mission to inspire other businesses wanted to create a Corporate Sustainability Report. But csrs tend to be wordy and far from engaging. So a small team at Patagonia decided to create a video-heavy story online, which featured real people, traveling to the factories where Patagonia gear is made and tracking the impact each garment had on the earth.

The Footprint Chronicles went live in 2009. Since then, Patagonia has empowered people who supported the initiative within the company to do more. They tour factories around the globe with cameras, they fill out data, and they generate updated content. It’s been both a celebration and a rallying cry for them to improve. Responsibility and transparency are integral to the brand; it’s part of why customers pay more for Patagonia gear.

“We don’t have a large marketing budget at Patagonia,” Boland explains. “The company has grown over 40 years, primarily from word of mouth. And with the Internet and social media, it’s allowed a lot of dedicated customers to spread the word about us. Our social media strategy is like a lot of our marketing: It’s very homegrown and very open and honest. We try to treat customers like friends.”

The Common Threads Initiative brought the successful Footprint Chronicles down to earth. It puts into practice the five R’s: Reduce, Reuse, Repair, Recycle, Reimagine. “Reimagine a world where we only take from the world what we can replace,” Boland says. “So we’re helping people do that. If you’ve got Patagonia gear in your closet, we’ll try to help you get it back into circulation.”

The branded Patagonia site is unique because it aggregates all of the used Patagonia gear on eBay into the Patagonia Common Threads Initiative shop. Customers are sellers, and they’re part of the “team.” (Users can take the pledge there, too.) And those sellers get triple exposure: first, in their own listing; second, in the Common Threads Initiative storefront; and, finally, on Patagonia’s corporate Web site, patagonia.com, where the listings appear under the Used Clothing & Gear tab.

New features coming this year will engage consumers even more by allowing customers to tell the story of their product. The “this is my jacket” pages will build community and keep gear in circulation. Both spread the goodness of the Patagonia brand organically. Why all the trouble? Patagonia takes no cut of the sales efforts. Yet Boland said the investment is worthwhile for the company’s mission and the brand.

“When the recession started, we worried like everyone else,” Boland says. “But in times of recession, folks are not spending frivolously. They’re repairing things, and there is this resurgence of old values, of passing things along. If there’s an upside to the weak economy, we think it’s that these ideas are resonating with people, and it’s helping build community. So far, it’s working out well for the business of Patagonia, too.”