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How ‘Buy Less’ Could Make You Buy More

Patagonia and eBay have joined forces to create the Common Threads Initiative, a campaign to encourage the clothing line’s customers to buy fewer new things and to participate in a dedicated used-clothing marketplace for Patagonia gear. The idea seems simple, responsible, and appealing – but it could also, perversely, end up encouraging consumers to buy more, or pay more for what they buy.

The pitch is that Patagonia pledges to make clothing that lasts a long time, and you as their customer pledge to buy only what you need. It certainly fits with the company’s eco-consciousness (the company gives 10% of pre-tax revenue to environmental activist groups), and with a broader trend towards thriftiness and sustainability among consumers, says Matt Wallaert, a behavioral psychologist at digital strategy firm Churnless. That buy-less, make-better deal is “a good bargain” for society, Wallaert says.

But the campaign isn’t just good for the earth, it’s also good for the company’s brand image, and perhaps, bottom line. Consumers are increasingly used to the idea that pretty much everything they buy starts losing value the second they buy it, Wallaert says. Pitching the idea that Patagonia’s clothing will last long enough to be re-sold and worn again sends a powerful message that their stuff is the exception to that general rule that most stuff loses value quickly – and that therefore, it must be more valuable to begin with.

“One of the things about a used trade is that it increases your perception of that item’s value. There’s no used market for Hanes T-shirts,” he says, because Hanes T-shirts aren’t seen as valuable to begin with. The idea that there’s an active market for used Patagonia gear enhances the consumer’s perception of the new gear’s value, even if that consumer isn’t a thrift-store shopper and never will be, Wallaert says. “It gives you another reason to buy it,” he says.

That perception of quality could help the company sell more based on its ‘buy less’ campaign, sustainability consultant Eric Lowitt writes at Lowitt says new customers may be drawn to the brand because of the sustainability pitch – and that if consumers perceive the brand’s clothing as higher quality, it could even allow for higher prices.

UPDATE: Patagonia says the campaign isn’t designed to boost the company’s bottom line, even if that turns out to be the result. “When a customer decides to buy used, we lose money,” says Jess Clayton, a spokeswoman. Encouraging re-selling could ultimately end up benefiting the company, she says, because other decisions the company has made on principle, like switching to all organic cotton, have increased sales in the end. “I’d say it already is and will continue to be really good for our business because it’s the right thing to do,” she  adds.


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  • Pay Dirt examines the millions of consumer decisions Americans make every day: What to buy, how much to pay, whether to rave or complain. Lead written by Quentin Fottrell, the blog examines these interactions, providing readers with news, insight and tips on shopping, spending, customer service, and companies that do right – and wrong – by their customers. Send items, questions and comments to or tweet @SMPayDirt.