My nephew's wife had signed on for the midnight-to-7 a.m. shift at the
Old Navy in a New Jersey suburb. My niece was on duty all day at J. Crew’s flagship store in Manhattan’s Flatiron District. I wished them both multiple sales and sizable commissions. But otherwise my plan this year for Black Friday was to sit out the retail game altogether.
That was before I saw the ad in The New York Times. ”Don’t Buy This Jacket,” exhorted the full-page message sponsored by the Patagonia Common Threads Initiative. It went on to encourage readers not to buy what they didn’t need and to sell their used Patagonia products on eBay.
So while I had promised myself I wouldn’t buy anything other than a quart of milk (we’d run out) on Black Friday, I made the transition effortlessly into über-cyber-saleswoman, posting every one of the fleeces my 20-something sons had outgrown on the retail site, along with all those shirts they’d really never liked in the first place.
Oh, it felt good. So good, in fact, that I ended up cleaning out three whole closets. What I couldn’t sell through the Patagonia initiative, I bundled up for the nearby thrift shop.
I understand why retailers put such stock in Black Friday; it’s the day in the year when their balance sheets are said to move from the red into the black. I also have sympathy for the bargain hunters -- our nation’s economic slump has been long and painful.
But as the ad explained: Black Friday, “and the culture of consumption it reflects, puts the economy of natural systems that support all life firmly in the red.” We’re now using the resources of one-and-a-half planets on our one and only planet, the ad went on, “running short on fresh water, topsoil, fisheries, wetlands -- all our planet’s natural systems and resources that support business, and life, including our own.”
Of course, Patagonia knows well that it’s in the business of making consumer goods and is therefore a part of the larger problem. To make just a single one of the company’s more popular jackets requires no fewer than 135 liters of water and generates a whopping 20 pounds of carbon dioxide. The jacket leaves behind two-thirds of its weight in waste.
But the outfitter launched the initiative to challenge itself, along with the rest of us, to ”re-imagine a world where we take only what nature can replace.” It pledges to make gear that will last; to provide repair services for its damaged products; and to take all of them back once they’re worn out. (It also provides this nifty Patagonia Product Care Guide: Preserving Your Gear from A to Z.) In return, it asks that we buy only things we really need, that we fix what’s broken, and that, with the help of eBay, we give a second life to those things we no longer want.
That’s a bold call to action, especially coming from a company known for the durability of its products. The jacket is made in part from recycled plastic bottles -- built to wear well for a very long time. How does Patagonia expect to survive making things that last in a world dominated by cheap disposables?
I’m not sure, actually, but that won’t stop me from gamely taking up the company’s challenge. I’m as guilty of overconsumption as the next person, an easy target for ads touting the latest gadget and a (would-be!) slave to fashion. I share the urge to pile the presents high under the tree.
And yet, when I stop to think about it, I realize that my truly favorite things -- those given and received -- have always been those that last a very long time, often several lifetimes (books, musical instruments, the quilt on our bed), and those that have brought us together (the balls and board games, the hockey skates and snow sleds) for endless hours of play and laughter.
Spending surged this past Thanksgiving weekend, which is a good thing for those working in retail, and particularly for those, like my niece and my nephew’s wife, whose earnings come primarily from commissions.
But as we work together to fix our stumbling national economy, let’s also keep in mind the larger economy of the natural world. Let’s take up Patagonia’s challenge to think twice about the things we buy, and make more of an effort to dispose of them in responsible ways. And now I’m off to the shoe repair guy -- this boot heel is hanging by a thread...