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Building A Strong Brand Out Of Old Clothes

Patagonia's Common Threads Initiative promotes time-proven traditional values for the consumer

Submitted by: Marc Stoiber

Posted: Oct 30, 2011 – 10:28 PM EST

Tags: green, brands, marketing, csr, hyperconsumption, sustainability


By Marc Stoiber

Every once in a while, a completely counterintuitive idea comes along, shakes up our assumptions and becomes the new normal.

I believe Patagonia Clothing’s Common Threads Initiative is exactly that.

If you follow green business news, you’ll recall Common Threads recently making headlines. In the words of founder Yvon Chouinard, "This program first asks customers to not buy something if they don't need it. If they do need it, we ask that they buy what will last a long time – and to repair what breaks, reuse or resell whatever they don't wear any more. And, finally, recycle whatever's truly worn out."

The twist? 

Patagonia is playing an active part in keeping used clothing in circulation. Send them your worn togs, and they’ll refurbish and help resell them. Or, if the clothing is beyond repair, they’ll recycle as much of it as humanly possible.

As a business idea, it may seem like a good way to reduce sales. But that’s only if you don’t understand the power of the brand.

Hard Times, Higher Sales

I spoke with Rick Ridgeway, Patagonia’s VP of Environmental Programs and Communications. He took me through the history of the Common Threads program and the extremely powerful insight behind it.

“The idea was germinated in the 2008 economic meltdown. We noticed the stronger the recession got, the stronger our sales got. This seemed counterintuitive – why would someone spend more on Patagonia clothing, and not buy something cheaper?”

Although Patagonia isn’t market research-driven (Chouinard’s philosophy is to make clothing he and his team would want to wear), the company began to sense a shift in consumer priorities. Ridgeway relates, “People kept telling us that in tough times, the thing to do is reconsider stuff. Even if you have to pay more, it’s smart to buy things that last a little longer.”

This insight lined up beautifully with Patagonia’s environmental commitment. And after some creative brainstorming, Common Threads was born.

Common Threads powerfully reinforces Patagonia’s ethos and brand. If anything, it will turn loyal followers into proselytizing zealots and newbies into diehards.

And for anyone who believes more old Patagonia clothing in circulation will translate into lesser new Patagonia sales, consider brands like Porsche. Old Porsches are coveted and loved forever. Their durability and timeless attraction drive new car sales, providing a fantastic rationalization for spending the extra cash on German craftsmanship.

A New Old Insight

A few years of working in Europe introduced me to a very un-North American perspective on clothing.

In Europe, great clothing brands don’t come cheap. There are no massive Black Friday sales. In Germany, people would buy one beautiful piece of clothing a year at full value—then wear it for the next 20 years.

Here in North America meanwhile, we’ve been conditioned to buy clothing by the pound. We believe only chumps pay retail, and only grandpa would actually sew a button back on instead of simply getting a new shirt.

Ridgeway while concurring with this perspective added the European preference for durability and lasting elegance was once at home here in North America too.

He related the story of his wife, a former model who bought some haute couture from Calvin Klein back in the 1980’s. Not only did this clothing retain its style, it was crafted so durably that today their daughters are proudly wearing it.

Could Patagonia’s Common Threads be tapping into a timeless insight that the hyperconsumption of the last 20 years has somehow marginalized? Could the recession be moving us back to appreciating durability and timeless style over fast fashion? And most importantly, could this be a harbinger of a new move to products that last and last?

Crucial Lessons

    1. Don’t waste a good crisis: The recession is going to change many things. Being clouded by the negative blinds you to potential to redefine markets and tap into emerging trends. If Patagonia teaches us to hang onto clothing longer, will there be a car, electronics or appliances brand that seizes the same insight?

    2. Get outside the jar: Once you’ve worked on a brand for more than six months, you’re inside the jar. In other words, you can’t see what outsiders see, and you’re vulnerable to attack. How is your brand faring in this recession? Ask someone outside your industry for an honest perspective, and listen hard.

    3. Don’t ignore heresy: Preserving old clothes is a great way to sell new clothes. It may not make sense on the surface (or in the short term), but Patagonia is about to prove it works…again. Heretical ideas are needed in uncertain times. Get in front of them.

Note: This article was published on Marc Stoiber’s blog. 

About Marc Stoiber

Marc Stoiber is a creative director, writer, innovator and green brand specialist. He consults with clients across North America. He also speaks and blogs extensively on trends that will influence the destiny of today's brands.

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