This story is about beauty, earth beauty and why engaging in sustainable fashion makes for beautiful brands. But it’s not a romance story, and I’m still the same: we are talking serious brand strategy business!
In 2020, online and multichannel have long become your daily bread and butter, and sustainable fashion is the next big brand strategy topic.
Sustainable Fashion and Branding
If I say Greenpeace, what comes to your mind? Strong pictures of activists occupying nuclear power plants or protesting whale fishing?
How come we don’t recall the true meaning of the word, i.e. peace for our habitat?
Because your inner search engine has been manipulated by strong marketing and branding. Greenpeace’s paid marketing has taken the top entries in your brain’s list of search results.
Here’s another one: What crosses your mind when you hear ‘sustainable fashion’? A blur of earthy fashion pieces, odd brand stories and stores with environmentalists wearing sandals?
Wake up! Long before Greta Thunberg, the market for sustainable fashion already filled large trade show halls. And there are some great brands and many best practices to serve as inspiration for your own business case.
Yes, some of those brands may be good-looking but poorly managed. And yes, some of those brands are merely greenwashing to ride the hype. But with sustainability as the next big brand strategy trend, all of them are likely at the forefront of consumers’ current mindsets.
If you hear ‘sustainable fashion’ and your brain engine still returns ugly environmental imagery, it’s time you work on your internal search engine optimisation. Let met me help by sharing the story of a beautiful brand: Patagonia Works.
Patagonia Works Truly Works
Patagonia is one of the oldest socially engaged companies and on a global level probably the most successful one. Exact sales figures are not public, but we estimate it at close to USD 1bn, given the brand’s global distribution. Above all, it is the most beautiful brand. Yes, beautiful.
Patagonia Works was founded by Yvon Chouinard in California almost 50 years ago. Yvon was a dedicated climber and cared about the environment early on. His first environmental footprints were product innovations like reusable pitons (metal spikes) and other hardware.
Patagonia already began to support individuals in local environmental projects in the early 1970s. Not to mention their early and deep engagement in sustainable fashion. Over the years, Patagonia’s total engagement exceeded USD 100 million in cash plus the equivalent in management hours.
Patagonia is by far not the only environmentally conscious company; the outdoor industry widely practices a ‘give back to nature’ culture. But Patagonia’s founder went a step further by turning company into a B Corporation in 2012.
What to some may sound like an NGO or social enterprise is in fact a serious business concept. B Corporations thrive on a mission to grow because they want to grow in impact on their cause. And they want to be publicly measured by this growing impact.
To achieve this goal, B Corporations follow very transparent reporting practices with sophisticated annual audits. And as insiders report, that can be more stressful than filing regular financial reports. But above all, it makes the company focus on what truly matters: the contribution to society.
Is Patagonia Successful?
Yes, it is indeed very successful in sustainable fashion. How do I know, when no sales or profit figures are published? We are talking about Patagonia and their mission – and that is exactly what they want to achieve. They don’t want to be measured in sales, they want to be measured by their level of engagement in earth saving projects. And measured by that, Patagonia is very successful as a company, and as a brand.
But do they still measure sales and profits? For sure. Not only because CEO Rose Marcario comes from a solid career in private equity and finance, but also because Patagonia can only contribute to the health of the planet if the business can finance its mission.
As long as financially smart people in the back office make sure that spending never exceeds income, the benefit corporation can be very successful.
What Is so Beautiful About Patagonia?
Much has been published on Patagonia’s story and sustainable fashion. But to really grasp the concept and challenges of social entrepreneurship, I highly recommend reading Yvon’s intriguing and straight-forward book The Responsible Company. A brand strategy ‘must read’ in 2020, like the company’s latest annual benefit report.
More than anything else, these two texts shed light on how a company can align both, commercial thinking and engagement for the planet, without becoming a hopeless romantic.
In case you can’t make time just now to read up on the beauty of Patagonia, let’s dive into my five personal highlights:
You may have seen this Patagonia ad before. The beauty is that it achieved the exact opposite in sales, but will still have helped the planet significantly.
As the campaign came out at the height of the US retail run, it caught the attention of many who read the very critical message and reflected on the coming spending hype. Branding professionals call this type of messaging a ‘paradox intervention’. By communicating the unexpected or unwanted, you create interest in the opposite. A case of beautiful benchmark branding.
In brand retail we often see variations on in-store sewing machines, mostly serving the purpose of customising and individualising products on the spot. Patagonia has sewing machines too, but theirs serve to extend the lifespan of your old product with free repairs.
The beauty of the free repair service is that it’s not only for Patagonia products, but for all brands, as long as the repair is not too technically complex.
If I ask about best practice for product launches, around 80% of us might think of Apple’s early iPhone launches. How about this one instead?
Can you believe that this was the opening of a pop-up store for sustainable fashion? All it was selling was used Patagonia clothing. Patagonia truly living its mission to the fullest.
Would you offer your most valuable space in store, right past the entrance at the centre, to political campaigners?
If you are tired of listening to retailers greenwashing their operation by focusing on how much energy consumption they reduced with the latest generation of new stores, here is a different example of a Berlin store and its changing rooms:
These doors won’t need a PR campaign to convey that the CO2 footprint of this store must be outstanding.
Last but not least, my Patagonia favourite: no glitz and glam, no fancy lighting, just beautiful paper cut art. That’s the beauty of sustainable and socially responsible windows.
Creating beautiful Images
Reading about brand best practices is like discovering the beauty of nature. No written article replaces the personal experience of nature. So I stop here and encourage you to look for the true beauty of sustainable fashion yourself. Research, read, visit and, above all, experience it to grasp how beauty sustainable fashion and social responsibility not just for your branding.
Patagonia’s business case is beautiful, because it provides a textbook example of how growing a business can very well go along with saving the planet. Leading by example attracts consumers and creates sales. As a consumer I trust that the item I buy will contribute directly to a worthy cause. That’s why ‘don’t buy this jacket’ makes me do the opposite. With Patagonia, sustainability finally receives a new entry in consumer brains’ search results.
Your brand is not Patagonia, but a little Patagonia works for all of us – as business, as brand and as valuable contributors to society. Sustainable fashion at its best. In my eyes, that’s the future of branding: contributing to improving the world by evolving the business while doing good for the planet. And you can do it too.
On that note, if you care about sustainable fashion, don’t share this post!
A good friend of mine has a background in Greenpeace fundraising. He says, it is not campaign pictures that get Greenpeace the most donations, but the picture of the ice bear on a melting ice float. What does that tell us? Don’t give consumers the number of bottles you’ve recycled for your next collection, share pictures of the beaches you cleared.
Following the success of its first Black Friday ‘don’t buy’ campaign, Patagonia did another Black Friday 2017, by promising it would donate the day’s total sales to environmental groups. In the evening the brand had grossed USD 10 million instead of the expected 2 million. Consumers love to shop with a good conscience, even if the shopping mode is a discount rally.
About the Author
While Guido funds Greenpeace campaigns with a regular contribution, he admits to still not owning a Patagonia jacket. But that may change soon as he loves the new Patagonia flagship store in Berlin. If you want join him in studying Patagonia or other brand stores, connect with him on LinkedIn.