Patagonia wants you to stop buying crap

 April 29, 2024

Patagonia wants you to stop buying crap

A new film from the clothing company underscores our mass consumption problem—while subtly marketing its clothes.

BY Elizabeth Segran

The quality of most products on the market today is utter crap. And it’s getting worse with time.

It’s particularly obvious with clothing. Sweaters are largely made from polyester, not wool, which is why they pill quickly. Shoes are made from plastic, not leather, which makes them hard to repair. Many brands deliberately design clothes to break down after a few wears, so you’ll go back for more.

[Image: Patagonia]

Patagonia is calling our current era the age of shit, or the “Shitthropocene.” Today, the clothing company debuted a new 45-minute short film on Youtube, by this name. The movie explains how humans evolved from creating durable garments to creating disposable clothes that are destroying the planet. It’s an important message for our moment and a rallying cry to turn things around.

Except for one small issue: The point of the movie is to illustrate that Patagonia’s clothes are well-designed and high-quality. But it’s hard to disentangle the film’s damning message on overconsumption with its overall goal of convincing you that it’s fine to buy Patagonia’s products.

In many ways, the message of the film is urgently needed. The planet is choking under the weight of the enormous volumes of crap that brands are pumping out.

Fast Everything

It’s taken about half a century to get to this so-called “Shitthropocene.” We first saw glimmers of the crap-ification of products with the fast fashion pioneers, like Zara and H&M. They developed a business model that was all about creating very trendy products at low prices by making them in overseas factories using cheap materials. It proved to be such a good business that almost all clothing brands—from Target to Gucci—have copied its approach. And the new wave of ultra-fast fashion brands like Shein and Temu make clothes that many people will only wear once or twice.

Alex Weller, Patagonia’s VP of creative, says the acceleration of fast fashion is partly what motivated the company to create this film. “In 2024, there’s a normalization of hyper consumption that is happening on social media,” he says. “There’s now a turbocharged version of fast fashion. Somebody had to take responsibility for creating a counterpoint to that.”

But it’s not just the fashion industry. The furniture industry is notorious for putting out low-quality pieces that break within a year. Tech brands make electronics with an expiration date, so you have to upgrade in a few years. All of these products take resources and carbon emissions to produce. And now they are clogging up landfills. It’s a planetary disaster of epic proportions.

The Shittropocene

Shittropocene engages with this issue with intelligence and humor. It goes back through evolutionary history, arguing that the dopamine hit we get from acquiring and consuming goods helped humankind survive. But in our current age of mass production, it is no longer a useful drive. Marketers make us think that products are scarce or that we can get a good deal, which drives us to buy more and more. And if this continues unchecked, it will result in the planet’s destruction and our own demise.

“The conversation about how fashion has an overwhelmingly negative impact on the planet is well-trodden,” says Weller. “We needed to figure out how to restart it in a way that encourages people to think about it differently. Approaching it through the lens of how human beings are biologically engineered to consume, and how humans have hacked that to turn us into hyper consumers, was an interesting way to unpack that story.”

The film has a serious premise, but it is executed with plenty of jokes, making it fun to watch. This is deliberate. The narrator even points to the irony of a clothing brand sponsoring the making of this movie. In between making the larger argument, there are interviews with Patagonia employees who talk about the brand’s obsession with quality.

Patagonia is a beacon of sustainability in the fashion industry. Its products are well made. In the past, I’ve written glowingly about its commitment to prolonging the lifespan of garments by making classic silhouettes that don’t go out of style. The brand also has repair services, upcycling programs, and a resale site, to keep items out of landfill for as long as possible.

These are all good things, and the rest of the industry should copy them immediately. But there is also no escaping the fact that Patagonia contributes to apparel’s enormous carbon footprint. Patagonia’s marketing is effective and the brand is growing quickly, which is to say, it is manufacturing more and more products. And this movie, while drawing attention to overconsumption, is also a vehicle to get us to consume more. As long as the products are from Patagonia.

Patagonia wants you to stop buying crap

This is something that Patagonia’s employees are constantly thinking about. And it’s been an ongoing issue. Back in 2011, Patagonia famously put out an ad on Black Friday that said, “Don’t Buy This Jacket.” It was designed to start a conversation about frenzied overconsumption, but it also resulted in Patagonia getting a massively successful holiday season when it came to sales. Sales reportedly rose 30% after the ad ran.

“We know there’s an internal contradiction of sending an anti-consumerist message, and then having the brand grow as a result of that,” says Alex Lowther, Patagonia’s head of film, video, and multimedia production. “But we also believe that we can be a fulcrum, where we can help change the way people think about their behavior, and give consumption a hard look.”

 

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a senior staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts 


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