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The most powerful ad ever?

Most retail ads scream, “buy me”. (The whole point is to sell stuff, right?)

But this Black Friday in the US, a full-page ad appeared in the New York Times with the headline “Don’t buy this jacket”.

The ad was for outdoor outfitter Patagonia, a company known for its environmental and social conscience.

The company picked the highest consumption day on the US shopping calendar (the day after Thanksgiving – the American equivalent of our Boxing Day Sales) to make a statement about considered consumption.

A record 226 million consumers went on a US $52 billion shopping spree over the Thanksgiving weekend, up 16 per cent on last year. So the juxtaposition was brilliant.

While Americans were opening their wallets with an abandon not seen in a long while, Patagonia was urging consumers to snap their purses shut.

And as online sales went through the roof over the holiday weekend – up 26 per cent on Black Friday alone – Patagonia chose the traditional print medium in a venerable publication to get their message across.

So what is the point of running an ad instructing customers to go without?

The ad copy talks to responsible retail and sustainability.

“Because Patagonia wants to be in business for a good long time – and leave a world inhabitable for our kids – we want to do the opposite of every other business today. We ask you to buy less and to reflect before you spend a dime on this jacket or anything else.”

The ad goes on to explain the environmental cost of the jacket pictured.

“To make it required 135 litres of water, enough to meet the daily needs (three glasses a day) of 45 people. Its journey from its origin as 60 per cent recycled polyester to our Reno warehouse generated nearly 20 pounds of carbon dioxide, 24 times the weight of the finished product. This jacket left behind, on its way to Reno, two-thirds its weight in waste.”

Finally, Patagonia asks its readers to “take the Common Threads initiative pledge” – to Reduce, Repair, Reuse and Recycle so that “together we reimagine a world where we take only what nature can replace.”

Last December, I wrote a column in Inside Retail forecasting the Top 11 Retail Trends for 2011 and at number 11 was considered consumption. As I said then, “the days of mindless consumption are gone”.

In another trend, value and values, I noted that “customers are starting to demand that retailers not only offer value, but values like environmental and social responsibility”. The Patagonia ad underlines a movement that is gathering pace and can’t be ignored.

So as we enter our own season of giving, perhaps it’s also time to think about how we as retailers can act more responsibly – in our sourcing, products, supply chain, our push for quantity (positive comps) over quality (margin) sales.

Customers will thank you for it and be even more loyal to your brand. Because after reading that ad, the ironic thing is… I want that jacket.

* Jon Bird is CEO of specialist retail marketing agency, IdeaWorks. Email: Blog: Twitter: @thetweetailer

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