A company that actively dissuades its own customers from buying any stuff and transparently tracks its own environmental failings — and still turns a profit selling clothes. No, this isn’t a weird dream. It’s fleece-‘n-flannel purveyor Patagonia, which has built a brand, and corresponding loyalty, around sustainable, built-to-last goods, resulting in $400 million in annual revenue. It even recycles its products that you’ve worn out.

Worn-out Patagonia clothes bound for the recycling center.
Reno Patagonia
Worn-out Patagonia clothes bound for the recycling center.

From Fast Company Co.Create:

Patagonia makes some of the best, and most expensive outdoor gear in the world, but the company’s mission is bigger than simply maximizing profit. The mission is: “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.”

That would be an easy pursuit if Patagonia didn’t care about running a great business. But therein lies the lesson. Patagonia has found a way to marry good business with its brand promise. According to Patagonia’s Director of Environmental Strategy, Jill Dumain, “If I wanted to make the most money possible, I would invest in environmentally responsible supply chains … these are the best years in our company’s history.”

The company is making money by living its brand promise … Thus, Patagonia’s audience trusts the brand, admires its values, and aspires to live by the same principles.

Patagonia is essentially selling your ethics back to you, but in a cozier and arguably more durable package. It’s working for the company, but is it working for the rest of us? Co.Create says consumers “invest” in Patagonia by buying its goods, but we know that’s not really how this works.

The company’s brand acknowledges and kills a little bit of our shopping guilt, but it’s still ultimately selling us more stuff. Make no mistake — Patagonia does not really want you to overthrow capitalism.

And if you don’t need that new flannel in the first place, it doesn’t really matter how recyclable it might be.