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Patagonia, the commercial angle of sustainability and audience sentiment

By Marcus Pemberton, VP customer success

Patagonia, the commercial angle of sustainability and audience sentiment

I love Patagonia. In my youth I worked in a mountaineering equipment shop and I would almost always take customers over to the Patagonia section when they asked me for help. Why? My answer might not be what you think.

It would be easy for me to say that it was because they were the most sustainable brand and because I care about our planet – and claim lots of social credit in the process. But the real reason was that I was living in central London on minimum wage, we got 0.5% commission on all sales, and Patagonia’s unique brand purpose made it incredibly sellable.

Someone might pop in for some sun cream and I’d send them home with a full suite of Patagonia kit, and both of us would feel great about it. Patagonia makes you feel like you’ve made a responsible choice, like you’re making a difference, without comprising on style, performance or quality.

Improving our corporate sustainability is not only the right thing to do for our world and our future, it can also have a dramatic impact on sales – but only if it’s done correctly. I’m continuously amazed at brands’ cynical attempts to create performative sustainability initiatives and completely crashing & burning – ruining audience sentiment in the process.

Here at Relative, we’ve supported a great number of our customers with their sustainability research, and from that research we’ve come up with a number of principles companies need to follow with their sustainability policies.

1. Go all in

If you’re going to genuinely have a commercial effect with your sustainability efforts, you need to bake it into the DNA of your business.

Patagonia was built from the realization that outdoor clothing was actually incredibly damaging to the environment, and was founded on the principle that we shouldn’t have to destroy nature to enjoy it. By keeping that simple principle at the core of its business, it means that nothing will ever appear performative or cynical, every sustainability initiative is just Patagonia being Patagonia.

Our previous analysis shows that consumers were more likely to discuss “principles” and “ethics” when comparing Patagonia to its competitors.

2. Keep it relevant

Patagonia focuses on the outdoors and nature, as that’s where customers use its equipment. You can clearly see the link between enjoying the outdoors and making sure we protect it, and that’s why Patagonia’s sustainability messages have resonated so well with their target audience. Companies that talk about issues where they have no relevance are likely to attract accusations of cynicism and greenwashing.

Previous sustainability research we’ve conducted shows that consumers were more likely to discuss “natural”, “nature” and “environment” when discussing Patagonia when compared to their competitors.

3. Don’t be performative or exaggerate

Patagonia has never done huge global ad campaigns or used mega-influencers to talk about how sustainable it is. It’s quietly gone about its business, doing the right thing, and allowing its actions to do the talking.

Brands that do the opposite – that is, shout loudest and do the least – are the ones that fail to resonate with consumers. Sustainability claims are robustly challenged and fact checked, particularly in the court of social media. It’s actually better to say nothing at all and avoid negative audience sentiment than to ham up your sustainability efforts – particularly if they’re fairly unimpressive to start with!

A number of Patagonia’s competitors have overindexed on words like “greenwashing”, showing that consumers have concerns over other brands.

4. Focus on maintaining quality

Remember choosing between good quality printer paper or getting the terrible recycled stuff? Those days are over – and not just because we don’t use printers anymore. Consumers expect companies to continue to produce high quality products AND be sustainable.

Patagonia succeeded in this mission, albeit with a hefty price tag, but consumers were willing to pay big bucks for that combination of quality & sustainability.

Our research highlights that the brand overindexed on “durable” and “quality” compared to competitors, demonstrating that there’s no compromise despite its sustainable approach.

In the end, Patagonia’s CEO was able to build a multi-billion dollar business in a crowded marketplace due to its unique brand purpose, and then of course made headlines by giving it all away.

Yes – it’s amazing that the brand has achieved so many of its sustainability goals, but the really fascinating thing is just how commercially successful it has been. Where so many companies see sustainability as a hygiene factor – something that will affect the bottom line and should only be brought up to the minimum level to influence audience sentiment and prevent consumers complaining – Patagonia proved that going all-in on sustainability is a commercially savvy choice.

I hope more companies learn this lesson and fast!



To find out more about how audiences respond the brands’ communications and actions around sustainability, download our ‘State of sustainability’ report now.