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Thursday, August 5, 2021

At the crossroads of environmentalism and consumerism

Despite being committed to their buyers’ values, major outdoor brands like Patagonia are capitalizing on environmental issues — and it’s not sustainable

Patagonia puffy jackets are a given on college campuses at this point, ubiquitous to the point that I’ve seen more than one starter-pack meme declaring them a staple of the “basic” college girl. It’s a ubiquity that warrants suspicion.

They belong in the same functional-fitness-meets-status-marker category as Lululemon leggings or Hydro Flasks, a niche characterized by brands so carefully associated with the people they’re selling to that they become a carrying card to a certain club, a certain status quo and, in the process, a cultural phenomenon. Patagonia, like other brands I have and have not mentioned, is a company strongly committed (and vocal about its commitment) to sustainability and ethics.

In the last article I wrote for this column, I briefly mentioned Patagonia’s role in mobilizing outdoor retailers to protest reduced protections of the Bears Ears National Monument, a beautiful swath of land in southern Utah. A dive into the company’s supply chain practices reveals a commitment to humane labor and sustainable material sourcing that outstrips the vast majority of major brands around today.

In the age of “fast fashion,” planned obsolescence and the undeniable presence of corporations in politics and policy, it’s hard to be too critical of a company actively vocal about and combative toward corporate, labor and environmental exploitation. But it is exactly because of its cultural relevance and corporate ethics that Patagonia is a company that calls into question the role of branding and label-awareness so heavily built into mainstream and subculture culture. There’s something of a “Cult of Patagonia” in the outdoor community, surpassing even the brand-awareness Patagonia has in broader American culture.

Branding is, at its heart, a pointed association of a product with a set of values. In the words of Naomi Klein’s eloquent 1999 book “No Logo,” the purpose of branding “is not to sponsor culture but to be culture,” wriggling into our lives to become one of our most basic expressions of our values. (Don’t believe me? Honestly think about how you would feel about wearing an Abercrombie & Fitch t-shirt in public.) We use brands to express ourselves to a truly shocking degree, and while a company like Patagonia is both aware of its power to shape culture and ethical enough to intelligently choose and determinedly live up to its values, it’s still capitalizing on value association, maybe more than most.   

Patagonia is one of a growing number of big companies that reflect and perpetuate a cultural shift toward consumer awareness about worker exploitation and environmental impact, and a desire to personally identify with outdoor culture that can be seductive. It has marketed itself into being a cultural phenomenon among outdoor enthusiasts and managed to sell that association to people who are not buying Patagonia products for anything more than cultural cachet. And on some level, that is antithetical to exactly the values it is associating itself with, reinforcing the systems supplying massive over-consumption that is such a big part of climate change.  

This article is not a call to boycott Patagonia — in fact, it’s almost the opposite. Patagonia is my model for what an ethical globally-successful company looks like, if such a thing is not an oxymoron. I don’t resent Patagonia for what it is, I feel like I’ve spent enough time in this article extolling its virtues to be nearly counter-productive, and hopefully enough to show how much respect I do have for it.

What I resent is the uncritical belief in the 3×5 cm label as an identifier of membership to clubs of cultural status and environmental awareness. Buying into the Patagonia brand of cool without recognizing you are paying $100 to $300 for a name is misunderstanding what it takes to love the outdoors. Excessive focus on the virtues of Patagonia’s business practices is a misunderstanding of what it takes to protect our planet. I have no beef with Patagonia or its creators, but the force of their social, branded success reveals something powerful about how we twist nature, outdoor culture and political will for environmental protection into something dangerously consumerist.

Written by: Anna Kristina — akmoseid@ucdavis.edu

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual columnists belong to the columnists alone and do not necessarily indicate the views and opinions held by The California Aggie.

1 COMMENT

  1. Who’s paying $100 to $300 for a name? All of my Patagonia or Land’s End stuff I buy not because of the name but because I in fact know they stand behind their products – so I don’t have to buy another jacket when the off-brand zipper breaks or what have you.

    Are some people? Probably – but Patagonia doesn’t seem to make a lot of fast fashion stuff as far as I can tell.

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