Why Patagonia Wants to Sell You Ratty Old Swim Trunks

Patagonia jackets at the Outdoor Retailer Summer Market show in Salt Lake City on Aug. 1 Photograph by George Frey/Bloomberg

While the retail world descended on Manhattan for Fashion Week earlier this month, Patagonia, the outdoor apparel company, took out a big ad in the New York Times to pitch a nine-year-old pair of used swim trunks. “Better Than New,” it read.

The California-based company is selling used clothing at five of its retail stores, not far from its $700 dry suits. It grants store credit for trade-in gear, reconditions the garments, and stocks them as “Worn Wear,” generally at prices that provide a 50 percent profit margin.

It is the latest gambit in the company’s effort to sacrifice its profits for the environment—or at least tell consumers it’s willing to. The green marketing, however, has proved very effective at cultivating the same growth Patagonia is railing against.

In the two years that Patagonia has been publicly imploring customers to “buy less,” its annual sales increased by almost 38 percent, to $575 million. Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard has estimated sales will continue to grow by about 15 percent a year.

None of this friction is lost on Rick Ridgeway, Patagonia’s vice president of environmental affairs. “It opened us up to claims of hypocrisy on very valid grounds,” Ridgeway said at one of the company’s Manhattan stores Tuesday. “The growth of our company—and basically every successful company—are overshadowing the benefits we are producing from sustainability initiatives.”

Rather than back away from the buy-less program, however, Patagonia is turning up the volume, launching a new publicity campaign today dubbed “The Responsible Economy” to highlight its environmental work. Patagonia is hoping the initiative will get executives to question business models that rely on compound annual growth (which is basically every business model when one considers competition and sheer population dynamics).

So can Patagonia really convince companies to grow more slowly? “We don’t know, we honestly don’t,” Ridgeway said. “We want to drive the conversation and see where it leads.” Ultimately, Ridgeway is hoping it leads to the halls of government where policymakers can require retailers to price in all the “externalities” of apparel—for example, the water required to grow the cotton in a jacket and the carbon required to ship it.

Patagonia should be careful, though; all the green talk might just trigger another tide of dollars.