Patagonia: Building A Strong Brand Out Of Old Clothes

by Marc Stoiber

Every once in a while, a completely counterintuitive idea comes along, shakes up our assumptions, and becomes the new normal. I believe Patagonia Clothing’s Common Threads initiative is an idea like that. If you follow green business news, you’ll recall Common Threads making headlines a few weeks ago.


Reuse, Recycle…Resale

In the words of founder Yvon Chouinard, “This program first asks customers to not buy something if they don’t need it. If they do need it, we ask that they buy what will last a long time – and to repair what breaks, reuse, or resell whatever they don’t wear anymore. And finally, recycle whatever’s truly worn out.”

The twist? Patagonia is playing an active part in keeping used clothing in circulation. Send them your worn togs, and they’ll refurbish and help resell them. Or, if the clothing is beyond repair, they’ll recycle as much of it as humanly possible.

As a business idea, it may seem like a good way to reduce sales. But that’s only if you don’t understand the power of the brand.

Hard Times, Higher Sales

I spoke with Rick Ridgeway, Patagonia’s VP of Environmental Programs and Communications, about Common Threads. He took me through the history of the program, and the extremely powerful insight behind it.

“The idea was germinated in the 2008 economic meltdown. We noticed the stronger the recession got, the stronger our sales got. This seemed counterintuitive – why would someone spend more on Patagonia clothing, and not buy something cheaper?”

Although Patagonia isn’t market-research driven (Chouinard’s philosophy is to make clothing he and his team would want to wear) the company began to sense a shift in consumer priorities. Ridgeway relates “People kept telling us that in tough times, the thing to do is reconsider stuff. Even if you have to pay more, it’s smart to buy things that last a little longer.”

This insight lined up beautifully with Patagonia’s environmental commitment. And after some brainstorming, Common Threads was born.

Common Threads powerfully reinforces Patagonia’s ethos and brand. If anything, it will turn loyal followers into proselytizing zealots, and newbies into diehards.

And for anyone who believes more old Patagonia clothing in circulation will translate into less new Patagonia sales, consider brands like Porsche. Old Porsches are coveted and loved forever. Their durability and timeless attraction drive new car sales, providing a fantastic rationalization for spending the extra cash on German craftsmanship.

New Old Insight

A few years working in Europe introduced me to a very un-North American perspective on clothing.

In Europe, great clothing brands don’t come cheap. There are no massive Black Friday sales. Where I lived in Germany, people would buy one beautiful piece of clothing a year at full value – then wear it for the next 20.

Here in North America, meanwhile, we’ve been conditioned to buy clothing by the pound. We believe only chumps pay retail, and only grandpa would actually sew a button back on instead of simply getting a new shirt.

Ridgeway concurred with this perspective, and added that the European take on durability and lasting elegance was once at home here too.

He related the story of his wife, a former model who bought some haute couture from Calvin Klein back in the 80s. Not only did this clothing retain its style, but it was crafted so durably that today their daughters are proudly wearing it.

Could Patagonia’s Common Threads be tapping into a timeless insight that the hyperconsumption of the last 20 years has somehow marginalized? Could the recession be moving us back to appreciating durability and timeless style over fast fashion? And most important, could this be a harbinger of a new move to products that last and last?


  1. Don’t waste a good crisis – The recession is going to change many things. Being clouded by the negative blinds you to potential to redefine markets, and tap into emerging trends. If Patagonia teaches us to hang onto clothing longer, will there be a car brand, electronics brand or appliance brand that seizes the same insight?
  2. Get outside the jar – Once you’ve worked on a brand for more than six months, you’re inside the jar. In other words, you can’t see what outsiders see, and you’re vulnerable to attack. How is your brand faring in the recession? Ask someone outside your industry for an honest perspective, and listen hard.
  3. Don’t ignore heresy – Preserving old clothes is a great way to sell new clothes. It may not make sense on the surface (or in the short term), but Patagonia is about to prove it works…again. Heretical ideas are what’s needed in uncertain times. Get in front of them. Φ

Marc Stoiber is a creative director who helps clients build resilient, futureproof brands. He previously was head of green innovation at Maddock Douglas, a leading U.S. innovation firm; president and founder of Change, a green brand agency; national creative director at Grey Advertising; and creative Director at DDB. His passion lies at the intersection of green, brand, and innovation. He speaks on the topic of brands and innovation from coast to coast, and writes on the subject for journals that include Fast Company, Huffington Post, GreenBiz and Sustainable Life Media

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