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How a clothing company’s anti-consumerist message boosted business

High-end outdoor clothing company Patagonia outfits mountain climbers, snowboarders, surfers and trail runners -- athletes who subject their gear to abuse. Each day, some of that clothing makes its way back to the company's headquarters, where workers extend the life of their customers’ products by making free repairs. Economics correspondent Paul Solman reports on the company’s ethos.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Next: a look at a seemingly counterintuitive business model.

    Economics correspondent Paul Solman goes inside an American clothing company that has been growing rapidly, while marketing itself as an anti-growth business.

    It's part of our weekly series Making Sense, which airs every Thursday on the NewsHour.

  • WOMAN:

    Are you guys sitting down, because this is pretty horrifying. OK? Dog bite? Shark attack?

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Seamstress Cathy Averett couldn't care less.

  • CATHY AVERETT, Patagonia:

    When I get something like this, I do my best to make it kind of special, you know? It doesn't look new, but so what, OK? I don't look new anymore. It's OK.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Averett stitches for Patagonia, the outdoor clothing company high-end enough to have earned the nickname Patagucci. Downstairs, the company's Reno, Nevada, warehouse and distribution center sends its garments hither and yon, to be worn by rock and mountain climbers, skiers and snowboarders, surfers, trail runners, or folks who just want to dress as if they do all that stuff.

    And each day, some of those clothes make their way back to Reno, to what's billed as the largest clothing rehab facility in North America.

  • WOMAN:

    They mess them up and we fix them up.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • DOUG FREEMAN, Chief Operating Officer, Patagonia:

    Behind me are 55 people extending the life of our product for our customers.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Doug Freeman is Patagonia's chief operating officer.

  • DOUG FREEMAN:

    We want our customers to invest in great product, and when it's worn out, we want to repair it for them.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    It doesn't sound economical for the company.

  • DOUG FREEMAN:

    I can understand why you would say that. But the way we view it is that we want to reduce consumption.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    That's what makes Patagonia so odd, a supposedly anti-consumption corporation. Since its founding in 1973, it's always had a so-called ironclad guarantee, including free repairs. But, recently, the company ramped up its promotion of that pledge, with a cross-country Worn Wear bus tour, biodiesel-fueled, of course, tailors reviving garments at stops along the way.

    And though it spends little on advertising, Patagonia donates more than twice as much to environmental causes.

  • LISA PIKE SHEEHY, Environmental Programs Director, Patagonia:

    We give away 1 percent of sales each year to grassroots environmental organizations around the world.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    The company is always on message, as in a famous full-page New York Times ad: "Don't Buy This Jacket."

  • MAN:

    It seems kind of oxymoronic.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    It certainly does. In fact, sales are booming, up 25 to 30 percent a year since that ad ran.

    But we wanted to know, is this just a sales gimmick? So we went to the new Patagonia store in New York City's SoHo district, which boasts its own repair center, and, in keeping with the reduce/reuse/recycle ethos, features wood beams salvaged from the former Domino sugar factory and marble counters reclaimed from the renovation of the Museum of Modern Art.

    Turns out customers like yoga instructor Kim Larkin buy into don't buy this jacket.

  • KIM LARKIN, Yoga Instructor:

    It's intriguing, because nobody is saying that. Everybody wants you to buy their stuff.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    But are you less or more likely to buy something once you have been told not to buy it?

  • KIM LARKIN:

    I think I'm more likely to buy it.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Why?

  • KIM LARKIN:

    Because it feels like it's against consumerism in some way.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    So what's going on? Well, according to Patagonia, if you buy stuff that lasts, and gets revived, so it will last even longer, well, in the long run, less stuff will get made and consumed.

  • DOUG FREEMAN:

    We hope our existing customers do indeed buy less. But we hope to attract more customers that are interested in our message: to build the best product, to reduce our impact and cause the least amount of environmental harm.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    The way you could really reduce the company's footprint is by not selling any product at all.

  • DOUG FREEMAN:

    Sure, but if we can show the business community that we're successful, we think we're holding ourselves as a great example for how business can be done differently.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    So you're trying to knock off all the competitors out there who are making throwaway products, essentially?

  • DOUG FREEMAN:

    That's right.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    So that's the message. And it's certainly working.

    Thirty-year old Rich Daniel is an aspiring men's fashion designer who would like to emulate Patagonia's less-is-more philosophy.

  • MAN:

    I think this Patagonia campaign is definitely a part of a bigger movement, fewer, better things. I'm not interested in disposable fashion.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    In fact, he was shopping for a Patagonia jacket to replace one his parents had bought him when he 15.

    But do you feel at all as if you're being kind of suckered? Don't buy this jacket, and yet please buy the jacket.

  • MAN:

    Sure. I mean, their goal is to sell clothes, no matter what it takes. But I know that I'm going to have something that's going to last me a really long time.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Could the company be accused of conning the customer?

    District manager Betsy Pantazelos.

    And, in the end, there is more consumerism, not less?

  • BETSY PANTAZELOS, District Manager, Patagonia:

    I think not only can that be said. I think people have said that. But at the end of the day, this is really, truly who we are, and we're trying to invent a different approach to economics and to consumerism, and that we recognize we just need to start having a conversation.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    OK, let's grant the company the benefit of the doubt.

    But how, in short-term, Wall Street-driven corporate America, have they gotten away with a long-term strategy?

    Founder Yvon Chouinard, whom we were unable to interview because he was fly-fishing, told an environmental forum recently that, because Patagonia is privately held, he's free to reject traditional corporate values.

  • YVON CHOUINARD, Founder, Patagonia:

    The problem with a lot of public companies is that they're forced to grow 15 percent a year. They're forced to show profits every quarter. There's not one public company that will voluntarily restrict their growth for the sake of saving the planet.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    In fact, Chouinard has taken legal steps to try to prevent Patagonia from ever going public.

    But what's so curious to observers is that Patagonia, by voluntarily restricting growth, has fueled more growth.

  • YVON CHOUINARD:

    So, I am faced with this growth thing. We could be a billion-dollar company in a very few years. And I — it's not something I ever wanted or even want. TIMMY O'NEILL, Rock Climber: So don't buy this jacket, yes. Do you really need it?

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    The Worn Wear truck's latest stop: a music festival at the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams, Massachusetts.

    Renowned rock climber Timmy O'Neill is another Patagonia marketing ploy: not a pitchman, but a brand ambassador.

  • TIMMY O’NEILL:

    It's not: Hi. I'm Timmy O'Neill. Buy this jacket. It's: Hi. I'm Timmy O'Neill. Get outside and experience wilderness.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    And he seems to mean it, as does clothing rehab artist Cathy Averett.

  • CATHY AVERETT:

    I'm going to tell you the truth, OK? When I first started here, I was excited. I'm going, ooh, Patagonia, man, they got good stuff. I bet they got a good employee discount.

    But after I went on the Worn Wear tour, I have changed my way of thinking. I'm only going to buy what I need.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    This is economics correspondent Paul Solman, reporting for the PBS NewsHour from Reno, Nevada, where old clothes go to live another day.

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