Can Patagonia, or any retail store, ever really be sustainable?

What does a college kid at a climate rally and an investment banker have in common? There’s a high chance they’re both sporting the same Sherpa Patagonia vest — and they’ve both fallen into Patagonia’s ‘sustainability’ marketing scheme.

Patagonia, a California-based global outdoor clothing and gear company, is known for its sustainability initiatives. Its stance on climate change and environmentalism helped the company to grow from a small outdoor brand bought primarily by climbers, surfers, and other outdoors enthusiasts, to one that is the uniform for balding Manhattan businessmen and prep school teenage girls alike.

Founded by climber and surfer Ivon Chouinard in 1973, Patagonia began as a venture to accompany Chouinard’s climbing aspirations. He started by making pitons, a type of metal anchor used for climbing, and then found a niche in outdoor apparel. The brand has come a long way from its early days when Chouinard would sell climbing equipment out of the back of his truck. Today, the company is worth more than $1 billion.

That’s no small sum for a brand that espouses anti-consumerist and anti-growth rhetoric. Patagonia, it seems, profits from this strategy.

“The day that we hit a billion was a weird day on campus because the owner and founder was almost upset, never thinking he was going to have a company that large, “ Corey Simpson, a Patagonia spokesperson, told me in an interview on Jan. 19. “But at the same time, what we’ve been able to do is create and effect so much positive change in not only the outdoor industry, but in the business industry.”

In 2011, for Black Friday, Patagonia purchased a full-page ad in The New York Times. The headline read, “DON’T BUY THIS JACKET.” Underneath, it laid out the environmental impact of the jacket: 36 gallons of water, 20 pounds of carbon dioxide, and two-thirds of its weight in waste.

This ad was a total failure — unless you’re on Patagonia’s finance team. After the company published it, sales rose 30%. Profit aside, this means Patagonia flooded the market with 30% more clothing items than before the ad. In other words: More water, more carbon, much more waste. But also: more money for Patagonia.

That said, you can go onto Patagonia’s website and find transparent information about the brand’s social and environmental impact. The company is open about where its materials come from, how it treats its workers, the impact that its clothes have on the environment, and its partnership with 1% for the Planet.

Patagonia might be aware of its environmental impact, projecting it front and center for customers to see, but it puts the onus on the consumer to make the choice of whether to buy a product or not. In our consumerist society, the answer is almost always yes.

“I think it is so lost on the majority of what people are doing in this world where they’re like, ‘Oh, it’s sustainable,’ when in reality, what they’re trying to say is like, ‘Oh, it’s just like less damaging enough for us to kind of stomach this,’” Patagonia’s Simpson said. “So, at Patagonia, we are not naive at all to what our impact is on the world.”

Today, people consume about 400% more clothing than we did two decades ago, making up about 80 billion new pieces of clothing each year.

People are not buying less clothing from Patagonia. The more the company rejects its consumers, the more people want to consume its products. In 2013, the company projected $570 million in sales. Now, it’s making more than $1 billion.

As companies and consumers, we need to check ourselves. The rate at which we consume cannot be maintained. This is a clarion call for me and society to acknowledge that putting the label ‘sustainable’ on a piece of clothing does not give us the right to indulge in excess.

Patagonia is a good company that does good things. Its employees are mindful. But “sustainability” is a term that greenwashes us as consumers. It causes people to think we’re doing good for the environment when we buy Patagonia’s products, but with every purchase, by Patagonia’s own admission we’re creating more waste.

Sustainability may be the company’s ethos, but the most environmentally friendly way forward is to halt consumerism altogether, and the more Patagonia promotes its sustainability as a badge customers can wear, the more the company is greenwashing its customers and profiting from capitalism.

If Patagonia really wants to help the planet, it wouldn’t be a company at all, or at least it would set a cap on how many products it could produce and sell and limit its growth and profit.

Patagonia’s own spokesperson says the company is asking itself if the world would be better off without it.

“That’s not a question we’re well positioned to answer any more than any human being can ask, ‘Is the world better off without me,’” Simpson says. “We do know that being in business to save our home planet, which is our mission, it has especially inspired young people and other companies towards the goal of making useful things the right way to reform the approach that we have about commerce and consumption.”

Consumption is a complicated issue. I will be the first to admit that I own plenty of Patagonia products and battle with the voice in my head that tells me to buy more, especially when the company makes me feel better about my purchase by promoting “sustainability.” But the question is not ‘to buy or not’; it is about continuing the conversation and holding companies and ourselves accountable for our blind spots.

However, the truth is: It doesn’t matter how many jackets are made of recycled cotton or if the company runs on renewable energy. If Patagonia didn’t exist, it would have no impact on the environment. As a consumer-driven society, we need to step up to the plate, continue to ask the difficult questions, and not let buzz words like “sustainability” skew our conscious.

Annika Furman is a senior at Colorado College majoring in Integrative Design and Architecture and minoring in Journalism.

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