Patagonia is a company devoted to sustainability and environmental causes. Those values are central to its brand, its image, and its positioning, as a company that outdoor enthusiasts can trust to be ethical as well as functional. But its products also appeal to other target markets, whose own values might not resonate as closely with the company’s. In response, it is taking steps to limit access and sales to certain wearers.
In particular, Patagonia vests have become a popular fashion trend among male bankers and financiers working on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley, who get the vests embroidered with their corporate logos and wear them over button-down shirts. One story about how this usage got started cites the famously low temperatures on stock trading floors, which are kept cold to protect the massive computing infrastructure that allows the markets to run smoothly. Another anecdote suggests that tech startup founders, not known for their attentiveness to high fashion, used the combination of a vest and button-down shirt as relatively more formal attire in pitch meetings with venture capitalists.
Regardless of its origin, the fashion trend has gained widespread recognition, such that wearing a vest, embroidered with both Patagonia’s logo and a corporate name, signals to others that the wearer works in finance or tech, rather than being “just some office drone.” The personalization also gives people wearing the vests a sense of identity and uniqueness, even if nearly everyone in their business network is wearing something similar. Notably, women in these industries have not adopted the trend as widely, so an image of “bros” working in profit-oriented industries has become closely linked to the vests. Such images—a hierarchical status ranking, a gender-linked form of identity, and a profit-oriented value system—strongly conflict with Patagonia’s general corporate attitude and brand values. For example, rather than solely pursuing profits, Patagonia commits to donating 1 percent of all annual sales to environmental causes. It prefers its environmental values and image and does not necessarily want its brand logo and one of its signature products to be featured alongside the logos of firms that reject such values. Therefore, it announced recently that it would no longer support bulk orders by firms that do not “prioritize the planet.”
The new limit immediately excluded oil and mining companies, but for financial or tech firms, the restrictions will be applied on a case-by-case basis. In addition, firms that already have placed orders with Patagonia can continue to do so. But if a venture capital firm recently has decided to offer the vests to all its employees, it might find itself locked out, unless it can demonstrate that it is a socially responsible firm that actively supports and ensures sustainable, environmentally friendly activities.
For legacy purchasers, the rule might make the vests into even more of a status symbol; if not every company can get them, well-qualified job seekers might be more interested in those firms that still are able to dole out the vests as employee perks. Alternatively, some firms might turn to other vest brands, like LL Bean or North Face, though the reputational benefits of those other brands might not be as powerful. Those responses are not particularly a concern of Patagonia, which is seeking to avoid becoming too closely associated with Wall Street and its popular reputation for being devoted to money and profits. The “bros” who frequently seek out and wear the vests—as depicted in popular media such as the television series Silicon Valley or films like The Wolf of Wall Street—are not the market that the company traditionally has targeted, nor is it one that it wants to start marketing to anytime soon.
- How should companies respond when a non–target market adopts their products? Is Patagonia’s response reasonable?
- What are the likely short- and long-term implications of Patagonia’s decision to limit sales of its vests to firms that do not prioritize environmental issues?
Source: Akane Otani, “Patagonia Triggers a Market Panic over New Rules on its Power Vests,” The Wall Street Journal, April 8, 2019; Spencer Jakab, “Wall Street Bankers No Longer Fully Vested,” The Wall Street Journal, April 4. 2019