I receive a lot of press releases and story pitches in my day job. Lately, companies seem to be eager to tell me how consumers are more likely to be loyal to brands that take a stand, have a conscience, and are good corporate citizens. I want to write back, “Yeah, I know. Let me tell you about my coat.” But, since that would be weird, I’m going to tell you about my coat.
Last year, I was facing my first Vermont winter. I’ve lived my entire life in the Northeast. I’ve waited outside for the school bus is freezing temperatures. I’ve spent all day playing in waist-high snow. I’ve come home from a long day of sledding to jump in a hot shower and feel the familiar itch and tingle of numb skin coming back to life. I’ve also been a commuter in New York City, where winter winds are particularly brutal because of the canyon-like effects of skyscrapers. More recently, I’ve been someone who worked from home and took the dog for a long walk every day, in all but the most brutal weather.
But staring down what was predicted to be a particularly punishing winter throughout New England from our new home in Vermont felt like a good reason to buy a new jacket. I had two old winter coats hanging around. One was a knee-length parka from Eddie Bauer. It had served me well for a few years but now had a big mystery stain on the back that wouldn’t come out at the dry cleaners. The other was a 10+-year-old Columbia ski jacket. The white parts no longer came clean, and it made my shoulders hunch in a way that made my neck hurt. I mostly used it for shoveling.
I decided I wanted a combination of these two jackets.
I liked the length of the parka. As someone whose winter outdoor time is mostly spent walking the dog, I like a coat to cover at least some of my legs since the part of your body between where your boots end and your coat begins seems to take the worst of the winter wind. But my parka was not water resistant, and the down often got soggy on snowy days. I liked that the ski jacket came apart, offering a waterproof outer shell and an ugly but warm inner lining. I often used the outer shell by itself as a raincoat. But ski jackets tend to be too short for my dog-walking needs.
Somewhere there had to be a coat that offered the best of both worlds.
It existed at Patagonia. In fact, the legendary outdoor outfitter had a couple options to choose from–and each one of them cost more than half a month’s rent. I am a bargain hunter, so I checked every competitor’s sight for a comparable coat, but I couldn’t find one. I even went down to my local Sam’s Outdoor Outfitters to see if they had something in stock. I found nothing like what I was looking for.
If you’re at all familiar with Patagonia you know the brand’s products are pricey but about as well-made as anything comes these days. I hemmed and hawed. The jacket was $450, far more than I’d ever spent on a single item of clothing in my life. It seemed an absurd price to pay for a coat. I’m not trekking to the North Pole, I’m just walking the dog. And frankly, old-timey Vermonters know coats aren’t even necessary if you’re OK with wearing every shirt you own all at once.
But then, the already eco-conscious company did something remarkable. The website sent a message to every browser that it was taking a stand against a President hell-bent on destroying America’s public lands–including lands that Patagonia shoppers used.
A lot of outdoor brands are greener and more socially conscious than most. They donate money to conservation and clean-up. They often have more sustainable production practices and tend to offer fair trade products. It makes sense. A lot of these companies were founded by old hippies, and are selling their products to tree-huggers. But Patagonia was doing something different. It was directly challenging a President I had nothing but the utmost contempt for.
I pulled out my credit card, ordered my jacket, and considered my money a donation to a worthy cause. (And then, of course, I took my old winter coats to the local homeless shelter.)
I am not being even a little hyperbolic when I tell you this is the best jacket I’ve ever owned. The inner lining is one of Patagonia’s popular nano puff jackets, which I knew to be warm because my boyfriend has one and I often stole it to take the dog out at night. The outer shell is a raincoat. Together they make an insulated, weatherproof coat, but they are each nice jackets in their own right. When the fall weather first starts to turn cold, the nano puff is enough. It’s not until the weather gets wet, or bitterly cold, that I need the outer layer. Through the worst of winter, I wear the whole thing as one, but when the weather warms I can take the two apart and use the raincoat year round. I also love that if I set out for a walk on a cold day but start heating up, I just unzip the outer coat, and still have the inner coat to keep me warm. And this time I was smart enough to buy it in black, so mystery stains and dirty cuffs won’t plague me in years to come.
Obviously, I can’t say enough about this coat, but I’ve had it for about a year now, so why am I just starting to write about it? Well, because at the end of November Patagonia announced it was donating its unexpected tax savings of $10 million to grassroots environmental groups. I read a story about it on GQ’s website, shared it on Facebook, and wrote, “Last year’s coat purchase continues to look like a wise investment.”
Here’s the thing, Patagonia knows damn well people like me are happy to give their hard-earned dollars to companies that share my values (just like all those press releases I mentioned at the beginning of this post have confirmed). I haven’t set foot in a Walmart in years. (One of my favorite things about Vermont is how hard it has fought against Walmart.) Last year, thanks to my new coat and YakTrax, my boyfriend and I did our Christmas shopping almost entirely on foot in downtown Brattleboro during an ice storm–including at the co-op we belong to. We took “shop local” to a whole new level–we never even got in the car. If I had gotten in my car, it would have been into my 10-year-old Subaru Impreza, which is more practical than a Prius in the snowy mountains of Vermont, but still a pretty green choice as far as cars go (and Subaru embraced the LGBTQ community long before it was fashionable). I probably also would have taken my rescue dog with me.
I am, in essence, Patagonia’s target market–and the brand knows its good deeds make it easier for me to part with my money.
The strategy is paying off. According to the GQ article, “Patagonia is clearly sincere in its efforts to stall and, hopefully, reverse these effects, but it’s also not shy about the way its activism help the bottom line. ‘Any time that we do something good for the environment, we make more money,’ Marcario said during a speech at UC Berkeley last April. When Patagonia released its aforementioned ‘Don’t Buy This Jacket’ campaign, it was hailed as genius advertising. Then when the brand put up a black wall of text on its website declaring ‘The President Stole Your Land’ late last year, sales rocketed up.”
My mother was shocked when I told her how much my jacket cost. Frankly, I was still pretty sheepish about it at the time. I’ll wear this coat for 10 years, maybe more, I told her. (Seriously, being able to wear this coat forever is good motivation not to gain any weight.) But today, I don’t even care how much the coat cost. We all buy things. We all vote with our dollars every day. It’s more important than ever that we do.
The people yelling about MAGA and the “good old days” are the same people shopping at Walmart to save a few dollars, while their downtowns wither up and die… and then–if they’re lucky–reborn through the help of antique shops, artists, and artisanal cupcake makers (and the people who are willing to support these kinds of businesses with their paychecks). The MAGA people are buying the cheapest food at the grocery store while the farmer down the road struggles to make ends meet–and then complaining about those same farmers selling off land and things just not being the way they used to be. And I know all of this is part of a vicious cycle. Walmart moves in, kills small businesses and the good jobs that come with them, depresses wages, and becomes the only place people can afford to shop–and sometimes the only place people can find a job. Then, for some reason, the blame is never put where it belongs–on Walmart (or any other soulless corporation that puts profit before people). Instead, people will blame the artists and cupcake makers who are just trying to rebuild downtown for being “too expensive.”
I’m willing to pay more money for something if 1) that item is of superior quality and 2) the company shares my values and is putting its money where its mouth is. I know it’s a privilege to be able to do this, but I also think that if you’re one of the lucky people who can afford to pay a little more, then its incumbent upon you to do so. Yes, you should also be donating to worthy charities, but in a capitalist society, it’s important to vote with your dollars and make sure the good guys win.