Skip to main content

Patagonia's Common Threads Initiative is a partnership with eBay that provides an online clearinghouse for people who want to sell their used Patagonia clothing.

If all goes according to plan, a new marketing pitch by the outdoor apparel retailer Patagonia Inc. could result in lower sales for the company.

Launched during this month's Fashion Week in New York, the Common Threads Initiative is a partnership with eBay that provides an online clearinghouse for people who want to sell their used Patagonia clothing. Rather than fighting to attract attention amid the bazaar of more than 50 million items on the auction site, individuals will be able to leverage the power and presence of Patagonia: The second-hand items will be posted on both eBay and the main Patagonia website.

And Patagonia won't be taking a dime.

"It's sort of a concept that's a little bit difficult to grasp," suggested Rob BonDurant, the company's vice-president of marketing. "There's not a financial incentive. It's not a clear customer acquisition [program]for us. It's what Patagonia does."

Which is to say, Common Threads reinforces the company's counterintuitive approach to business, under which a potential drop in revenue may be a positive development. And as consumers increasingly say that companies should stand for something other than mere profit – and, more importantly, that they should put their beliefs into action – the initiative may provide a glimpse of the future of business.

In Patagonia's case, the company is requiring everyone who wants to sell second-hand wear through the new eBay co-venture to sign a Common Threads pledge. That commits its customers – morally, if not legally – to abiding by five environmentally conscious precepts, including the obligations to Reduce ("buy only what I need") and Reuse ("I pledge to use what I have, sell what I don't need, and buy used when I can.")

The pledge is another step in the company's decades-long history of promoting an agenda of environmental awareness. Already, it offers an impressive amount of information on its own environmental and social impact, with a comprehensive section on its website outlining the production processes of its various garments. (Want to know about that Pima cotton men's shirt? Patagonia is giving you the bad with the good: It's produced in a factory that claims membership in the Fair Labor Association, but the CO2 emissions attributable to its manufacture, marketing, and distribution is approximately 30 times the weight of the shirt.) "Clear is the new clever for marketers," explained Mr. BonDurant. "If you tell a customer exactly what you're doing, it becomes a human company, it's no longer a label."

The eBay venture – which is not yet accessible outside of the United States – actually represents a new development in an old program. Introduced in 2005, Common Threads began as a way of ensuring worn-out Patagonia wear didn't end up in landfill. After they were done with their clothing, customers could send it back to the company for recycling. The clothes are broken down into their native components, and reformulated into new fabric – and, in time, new clothes.

"We believe our responsibility for the product doesn't end when the customer buys it," Mr. BonDurant said. "Our responsibility ends when it has been returned to us for recycling."

That realization, he says, prodded Patagonia into making what it calls a "company-customer contract" – it pledges to cause the least possible harm in its manufacturing process, and asks customers in turn to use an item until the end of its life, or put it back into circulation through resale or recycling.

This is unusual. While many companies boast of engaging with customers – especially on social media like Facebook – few form strong relationships with their fans based on a call for shared sacrifice, or even much effort on the part of customers. (Even Patagonia realizes it can't ask too much: "We have made a commitment, we ask people to partner with us and hopefully that will gain steam over time," said Mr. BonDurant. "It has to be simple. It has to be easy. It has to be clear. If this is complicated in any way, shape or form, people aren't going to want to do it.") But Patagonia believes it has the ability to do so, since it has a history of sacrificing profit for ideals: It was an early proponent of organic cotton, a more expensive alternative to conventional fabric. And it isn't afraid of offending potential customers by taking controversial political stands.

At a trade show in Salt Lake City last month, it dispensed with the usual sale-oriented materials at its booth and instead used its presence to promote the cause of Tim DeChristopher, a climate change activist sent to jail in July for interfering with a 2008 auction of oil and gas leases.

"We want to bring attention to the issues that matter to us," Mr. BonDurant said.

Still, he admitted, "I think the other metric we have to put in the equation is the amount of hate mail that we get from those that say, 'You know what Patagonia? I love your clothes, I don't like your message – stick to your sewing machines.' That's when we know we're on message, because we're willing to lose customers in order to remain absolutely true to our mission."

And the customers it gains are attracted by more than just dependable outerwear; they embrace the company's values and become some of its greatest advocates.

Of course, the Common Threads initiative also underlines how dependable that outerwear is: If it didn't last a long time, people wouldn't be able to sell and buy it second-hand. "Absolutely, it's a halo," Mr. BonDurant acknowledged.

"Let's face it – if you tell a real and true story, that's good marketing; people want to talk about that, people are curious about it." There are three key charters in how the company markets itself, he said. "The first one is, We'd rather earn credibility than buy it. Two: the best recommendation comes from a friend. And the third one is that we advertise as a last resort."