Only path to true net zero is to not make products or ads, says Patagonia marketer
The outdoor clothing giant is revered for its responsible business and advertising model, but its senior marketer for Europe tells The Drum you won’t ever hear him call it a sustainable company.
Patagonia rarely makes ads these days. As the outdoor brand’s senior marketer in Europe tells The Drum, it prefers to leverage its cultural status to tell the stories that matter. “We don’t work in a traditional model, in that sense,” says Jelle Mul. “The brand is just a platform to do the right thing.”
Historically, he explains, it’s the fossil fuel companies that have shaped the narrative about climate change and the havoc it is wreaking on the environment. “So we have a responsibility to share the right narrative. It’s not about building Patagonia as a brand per se, but what we do see is that, as a result, people love our products and the way they’re built. They love the way we communicate that we are in a fossil fuel crisis, as well as a climate crisis, but that through community energy there are solutions.”
As these crises worsen, Mul says Patagonia’s messaging has changed. “For a long time we celebrated our former mission statement of ‘build the best product, provide the best service and constantly improve everything we do.’” It ran some of its most famous early campaigns around that premise.
“But that doesn’t necessarily solve the problem of how to implement business solutions to solve the climate crisis,” he says, so increasingly the brand has been doubling down on environmental campaigns, such as its ‘Art of Activism’ highlighting the struggles of local fishing communities in Italy.
For its recent, rare brand campaign celebrating 50 years in business, Mul says it was an opportunity for the brand to reflect on how its own messaging has shifted over the years – most notably, the brand’s founder Yvon Chouinard’s announcement last year that the brand would now be donating all its profits to fighting the climate crisis. Mul says it is now the fight for the future that’s at the heart of its ‘What’s Next?’ campaign.
“When conversations started [around this campaign], it was a case of wanting to acknowledge the work we have done in the past, but also that now we need to look forward. We are the first generation to really feel the effects of climate change and we are the last generation that can do something about it.”
Mul’s comments are timely. Just days before he spoke to The Drum the final installment and summary of the UN’s IPCC report explained in no uncertain terms that the world is likely to overshoot the 1.5 degrees of global warming it is deemed necessary to avoid lasting impacts from climate change.
As different regions around the world experience the varied and increasingly severe effects of that heating, The Drum asks whether this changes how Patagonia communicates to its customers depending on where they are geographically. For example, does a Patagonia ad look the same in the typhoons and earthquakes hitting Asia as it does in the heat waves that ravaged Europe last summer?
Mul says essentially no. “We really celebrate quality and believe that building the best products across the globe, everywhere, is what will save us from the capitalistic system we operate in – just as our connection to nature is the same everywhere too.”
He points to Patagonia’s ‘Not Mars’ OOH campaign, which saw murals pop up across the globe with the slogan ‘We’re in business to save our home planet’ (in clean air paint, of course). “There are all these billionaires who think we need to go to Mars, but we want to save planet Earth,” he says. That campaign was global, but Mul adds that if you dig a little deeper at Patagonia’s community campaigns there are regional differences.
“We have been working with different NGO’s around protecting the last wild river in Europe (the Vjosa in Albania), whereas Australia has been working on protecting forests. In North America, there are huge problems with drilling. So there are different issues, but the overarching theme is always the same.”
Mul explains that this extends to the digital world too. In June 2020, the brand announced it had stopped advertising on Facebook’s platforms, “because they spread hate speech and misinformation about climate change and our democracy,” according to CEO Ryan Gellert in a statement issued 16 months later, reaffirming its decision. The brand has stuck to its guns since.
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But when asked whether the brand measures the climate impacts of its campaigns through emissions calculations, as encouraged by the Advertising Association’s five-step plan to industry net zero, Mul says, “we measure everything we do, but we don’t look at it deeply,” pointing to the fact that the only path to true net zero is to “not make products and produce no ads”.
“The thing is, you won’t ever hear us call ourselves a sustainable company because every product we make has an impact on the environment. What we do say is we’re a responsible company and we constantly challenge ourselves to do better and we do the same with the partners, agencies and other companies we work with.”
He adds that the margins for carbon savings using these types of calculations are relatively small, saying: “We need to focus on bigger things.” Rather than fixate on measuring or minimizing the carbon impact of any individual campaign, Mul says Patagonia prefers to focus on “whether it’s the right message to get across and whether it is helping people to understand the issue at hand.”
He teases an upcoming campaign due to launch this summer that focuses on the world’s oceans, saying that the education that campaign will provide is “more important than the impact it will have.”
In true circular fashion, Mul says the key issue is that people don’t understand the risks posed by the climate crisis well enough. “We are being fooled to think fossil fuel companies are on the right track, but if you refer to the IPCC report, the science is very clear.
“We will get out of this climate crisis, but it’s either on our terms – if we as humans can decide to go in the right direction – or it will be on nature’s terms, and that won’t be much fun for us.”
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