Electra K Vasileiadou | iStock Editorial


Plant-based wetsuits prove sustainability sells.

Seemingly drastic in concept, Patagonia’s ads and products cater to a new generation of eco-conscious consumers.

It’s easy to find consumers who say they care about the environment. But how many are willing to pay more for products from companies that do the same?

It turns out that over half of global consumers are willing to put their money where their good intentions are, and pay more for products from companies that commit to social good, according to the Nielsen Global Survey on Corporate Social Responsibility.

Perhaps no other company illustrates this buying trend better than mid-market retailer Patagonia. In 2011, the company broke every rule of merchandising by taking out a full-page Black Friday ad in the New York Times with the message, “DON’T BUY THIS JACKET.” The company urged customers not to buy its fleece jacket, and to recycle or buy used instead.

Although the ad may have seemed counterintuitive, it actually highlighted the durability of costlier Patagonia jackets and clothing. Less than a year later, Patagonia’s “buy less” campaign increased the company’s sales by nearly a third, and Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard estimated that revenue will keep growing about 15 percent a year.

Two years later, Patagonia decided to push the envelope even further. It ran another ad last fall, this time featuring a shabby pair of 9-year-old swim trunks, with fabric from a beach umbrella patching up the rear, to promote sales of used clothes in some of its stores.

And for Black Friday 2013, the company promoted its “Worn Wear” campaign as the antidote to holiday shopping frenzies by hosting parties in every store to celebrate the stuff customers already own.

This is, after all, the company that makes wetsuits from plants, fleece jackets out of recycled bottles, and one of the first companies in California to switch to wind energy. Patagonia also donates one percent of its revenue to environmental causes.

And customers keep on buying. Just over half of consumers actually check the label before buying to ensure that a brand is socially responsible, reports Nielsen. Brands that have sustainability claims on their packaging or actively promote sustainability through marketing are rewarded with a 2-5 percent average increase in annual sales, while companies with no sustainability claims or marketing grow about one percent.

Highly sought after millennial shoppers are the most likely to pay a premium for sustainable products, reports Nielsen. Consumers’ top concerns for companies to address included clean water (67%), access to sanitation (63%) and environmental sustainability (63%).

And while 42 percent of North Americans will pay up for socially responsible products, the trend is even stronger among consumers in Asia-Pacific (64%), Latin American (63%) and Middle Eastern/African (63%) countries.

social resp graphic_Sustainability art boardNeilsen.com

It’s not just consumers that care about sustainability, either: 67% of employees prefer to work for socially responsible companies, Nielsen reports – another benefit for mid-market companies struggling to find enough qualified workers.

This fall, Patagonia will take sustainability up another notch, as one of the first outdoor apparel companies in the U.S. to introduce Fair Trade Certified™ garments.

“I know it sounds crazy, but every time I have made a decision that is best for the planet, I have made money. Our customers know that—and they want to be part of that environmental commitment,” Chouinard told Inc. magazine.

The mid-market innovator keeps breaking rules – and proving as he does so that companies really can do well by doing good.

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