Patagonia is one of the few corporations that has gotten credit for its environmental programs. The credit is well earned. It comes in part from their values that have driven their actions since their founding over 40 years ago. Their early niche was mountain climbing equipment with a concern for “clean climbing,” which meant reducing the damage to climbing walls. Soon after they got traction in the marketplace, they were visibly supporting environmental programs with a portion of their sales and profits.

Their latest initiative “Common Threads” takes it to a new level. Common threads aims to minimize the environmental cost of clothing through its programs to reduce, repair, reuse and recycle clothing. Repair clothing by returning your items to Patagonia to have the clothing repaired at nominal cost. Reuse clothing by donating clothing to charity, selling clothing through eBay’s Common Threads site or on the Patagonia website.

Patagonia will give unsold items to someone in need. Recycle clothing by returning recyclable items to bins, and the raw material will be recycled into new Patagonia clothing. Reduce by avoiding buying unneeded clothing in the first place. Patagonia ran a full page ad in The New York Times telling consumers not to buy one of their popular jackets because it takes so much water and energy to make, explaining that the ultimate saving is to forego buying something you do not really need.

What other clothing brand, whatever their environmental intentions, would go to that extreme? The whole program is remarkable in its scope, but this “reduce” component is especially remarkable. An umbrella brand such as Common Threads that packages a basic idea and a set of supporting programs is extremely helpful to companies that have excellent and well-resourced environmental programs that are unnoticed and ad hoc. It has the potential to tie environmental programs together and provide coherence and visibility.

As a result, the parent brand is not perceived to be an active environmental player. Common Threads is an excellent example of how branding can help tell the story of serious environmental programs. Without that brand, Patagonia’s four programs would have less impact on the world and on their own brand.

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