Don’t read this article: How ads against consumerism help sustainability

Clever marketing or an attempt to nudge consumers in the right direction? WRI’s Kevin Moss explains why brands like Patagonia and REI and their stance against the Black Friday sales frenzy is a win for sustainability.

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Flea market selling second hand clothing Image: Pxhere, CC0 1.0

REI and Patagonia are known for anti-consumption marketing campaigns, and the recent holiday season was no exception. REI was closed for Black Friday the third year in a row and its #OptOutside campaign encouraged people to go for a hike instead of shop.

Meanwhile, Rose Marcario, CEO of Patagonia, published a LinkedIn article titled The End of Consumerism, arguing that consumers should buy the “well-made, the long-lasting and the responsible. And leave the rest on the shelf.” Her message echoes the company’s famous 2011 Black Friday ad that instructed, “don’t buy this jacket.”

Are these just marketing ploys under the cover of green? After all, both companies have enjoyed significant sales growth in recent years. REI’s net sales grew 5.5 per cent in 2016, and Patagonia’s revenue has grown by $250 million since the infamous “don’t buy this jacket” ad was launched.

But could it be that this anti-consumerist marketing is good for the business and the world? I think these campaigns count towards the companies’ sustainability accolades, and here’s why:

Why anti-consumerism marketing helps

Someone’s sales are going to grow. Consumer markets around the world will continue to grow as the human population expands and we bring more people out of poverty. It is best for people and the planet that companies with smaller volumes of long-lasting products capture this market opportunity.

Patagonia may fit this description; it offers cheap or sometimes even free product repair and encourages customers to trade in items they no longer wear. Assuming its business model is closer to what we need in tomorrow’s markets, hopefully Patagonia can capture market share from companies that focus on being fastest at fast fashion despite the staggering environmental costs.

It changes the conversation about what business models can be successful.The traditional business model is that we make more money by selling more stuff to more people. Expressing a desire to do otherwise is a contrarian and risky position. When successful companies buck the consumerism trend, or even just say they might buck the trend, they challenge deeply ingrained assumptions about what business growth must mean. Patagonia and REI’s sales prove that companies can compete on value rather than price and volume. Their willingness to be outspoken may be what we need to shift the conversation.

It uses brand power to shift consumer attitudes. While many companies are engineering greener operational practices, many overlook the power of their brands to create a greener culture. Powerful brands influence consumer perceptions and aspirations and can make up a considerable portion of a company’s monetary value. Through artful marketing, REI and Patagonia are trying to shift how we derive fulfillment—from products to experiences, and from buying new and often, to maintaining the old.  

It encourages peers to do better. In the apparel industry, massive attention is paid to the runway shows of the most exclusive brands even by millions who will never buy their products. Those styles and trends eventually trickle down to more affordable labels. If Patagonia and REI set the trend—sell clothing meant to last, made from recycled materials—other retailers may follow.

My question to you is, what is your company doing in your industry with its brand that is equivalent to, and as bold as, asking customers not to buy a product?

Unanswered questions

There are important limitations that retailers must surmount before the industry reaches a tipping point and stops relying on growing volume of sales.

First, long-lasting products must actually replace products with a shorter lifespan. Is this happening? Are consumers buying the Patagonia jacket with a lifetime guarantee instead of the cheap fast-fashion jacket meant to be trashed at the end of the season, or are they buying both? We’ll know we’re on the right track when sustainable products displace their less-green competitors’ market share.

Second, the strategy of selling fewer, higher-quality items per customer makes good business sense because these companies target affluent customers who can pay premium prices. Retailers that target lower-income consumers who expect low prices may struggle to shift their business model in favour of product longevity. How, then, can retailers serve these customers with long-lasting products while generating sufficient return to satisfy shareholders?

Our research shows that more companies must move in the direction of REI and Patagonia—they must explore business models that meet consumer demand with lower product volumes. Otherwise, we will not be able to meet the needs of our growing population within planetary boundaries. This business model innovation will make or break corporate sustainability in tomorrow’s markets. My question to you is, what is your company doing in your industry with its brand that is equivalent to, and as bold as, asking customers not to buy a product?

Kevin Moss is the Global Director of the Business Center, WRI. This post is republished from the WRI blog

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