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November 1, 2013 // 4:00 PM

Patagonia's Founder Says We Should Buy Less Stuff (Including His Products)

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responsible-spendingA version of this post originally appeared on Up & to the Right, a new section of Inbound Hub. To read more content like this, subscribe to Up & to the Right.

I love Patagonia catalogs. They're beautiful. They're filled with photos of gorgeous (and expensive) clothing for hiking and skiing, plus breathtaking photography of daring mountain climbers and crazy backcountry skiers.

But the one I got last week contained a surprise -- not to mention a lesson in marketing ... and psychology ... and courage. Because there, on page 36, tucked in alongside all the pages of ski pants and down parkas, was an essay by Yvon Chouinard, the company's founder, arguing that we all should buy a lot less stuff -- including his stuff.

That's right -- the very same stuff that was being advertised on the adjacent pages of the catalog. Now that, my friends, is a brave man (or a crazy one -- I can't tell).

Chouinard's essay is titled “The Responsible Economy." It’s one of the smartest and most thoughtful essays I’ve read in a while, and you can read it online here.

Some Background Info on Chouinard

Chouinard, 74, is an expert rock climber and a passionate environmentalist. The first company he started, Chouinard Equipment, made climbing equipment like pitons and crampons. In 1973 he founded Patagonia, which now does about $500 million in sales per year.

So why is this guy telling people to buy less stuff? I don’t think it’s an act. I think it’s because he really, truly, sincerely believes it’s the right thing to do.

What’s more astounding is that Chouinard is staking out this position even though he’s not sure what it means for Patagonia. “Can Patagonia survive in a responsible economy? Stay tuned. It is the most ambitious and important endeavor we have ever undertaken,” he writes.

Patagonia has been a leader when it comes to environmental responsibility, as evidenced by campaigns like The Footprint Chronicles. That project lets you see every step involved in the making of every Patagonia product. Love that down jacket? Before you buy it, you can calculate the impact its manufacture had on the planet.

In a related “Common Threads Initiative” campaign, Patagonia urged consumers not to buy its jackets, pointing out in this ad, for example, that to make the R2 jacket shown in the ad required 135 liters of water, “enough to meet the daily needs of 45 people.”

Because of those efforts Chouinard and Patagonia were featured in “The Naked Brand,” the incredible documentary by Jeff Rosenblum about marketing, advertising, and corporate responsibility.

Patagonia Backs Up Its Talk

Over the past decade, Patagonia has adopted more sustainable manufacturing processes. All of its products can be recycled. But as Chouinard points out in his new essay, “Making things in a more responsible way is a good start … but in the end we will not have a 'sustainable economy' unless we consume less.”

Chouinard concedes there's just one problem with his theory, which is that if everyone consumes less stuff, “Economists tell us that would cause the economy to crash."

On the other hand, Chouinard points out, if we all keep consuming the way we do today, we’ll destroy the planet. Not much point in having a booming stock market without a healthy planet.

So Patagonia is doing some soul-searching, and doing it in public, and asking other companies to do the same. What’s amazing about the Responsible Economy Campaign (as it’s called) is that Chouinard doesn’t claim to have the answers. But he seems to be honestly, earnestly struggling with this issue.

Over the next two years, Patagonia will be commissioning essays that explore this dilemma and look for real-world examples of “responsible economies” in action. And Patagonia will try to find a way to stay in business but in a responsible, sustainable way.

Chouinard writes:

“We are questioning what Patagonia can do, as a company making some of this stuff, to lead us into the next, more responsible economy. What we are reaching toward is an economy that does not rely on insatiable consumerism as its engine, an economy that stops harmful practices and replaces them with either new, more efficient practices or older practices that worked just fine. An economy with less duplication of consumer goods, less throw-away-and-close-your-eyes. We don’t know exactly how this will play out. But we do know that now is the time for all corporations to think about it and act.”

Catch-22 for Consumers

I have to admit, I was pretty blown away when I started thumbing through that catalog, dog-earing the pages of things I wanted to buy, and then hit that essay. It’s pretty jarring to be in “consumer mode” and then to run up against an essay that scolds you for lusting after all this stuff that you don’t really need.

It's like flipping through Playboy and then hitting an essay about sex addiction.

The curious juxtaposition of consumer "porn" (beautifully shot photos of bright-colored, lust-worthy clothing) and a scolding essay about consumerism provokes a kind of cognitive dissonance, the uncomfortable feeling of having two conflicting thoughts or feelings at the same time.

It knocks you off-balance. It makes you anxious. It provokes an emotional response. That, I suppose, was the point.

The tactic does two things at the same time. First, it makes you feel guilty. Second, oddly enough, it makes you think that if and when you do buy stuff, you should probably buy it from Patagonia.

That’s why I think Yvon Chouinard is one of the world’s great marketers, whether he means to be or not.

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