Consumerism under fire at MIT Sustainability Summit

Patagonia exec, MIT Sloan professor assail consumption culture

April 30, 2013

Rick Ridgeway

Rick Ridgeway

Patagonia environmental chief Rick Ridgeway delivered a stern warning at the MIT Sustainability Summit on April 27.

“Too many people are buying too much stuff,” said Ridgeway, the clothing company’s vice president of environmental affairs. “It’s absolutely a crisis.”

The 2013 summit, held at the MIT Media Lab April 27 and 28, convened academic, professional, and government sustainability officials to discuss ways to reduce consumption and improve the environment. More than 350 people attended the event.

MIT Sloan professor John Sterman, director of the School’s System Dynamics Group, opened the conference by calling for a reduction in consumerism.

Sterman, sometimes known as “Dr. Doom” for his often dire environmental predictions, said the planet’s resources cannot sustain the current rate of consumption through improved technology alone. People must take charge by consuming less or fall victim to an unavoidable “day of reckoning” that would occur “within our lifetimes,” he said.

Patagonia, based in Ventura, Calif., has long made “implementing solutions to the environmental crisis” part of its mission, Ridgeway said. In his keynote address, he outlined how Patagonia is now showing the way for other companies.

In 2009, Patagonia joined with Walmart to form the Sustainable Apparel Coalition. The initiative aims to find a way to measure environmental and social impacts of the products its members make and sell.

The measurement tool created for the initiative is called the Higgs Index.

“If Higgs Boson is the particle that unifies the universe, the Higgs Index is the measurement that is going to save it,” Ridgeway said.

The tool measures everything from the cost of raw materials to the cost of disposing used footwear. It calculates the cost of water and land use, waste runoff, the effect of chemicals on people and the environment, and energy consumed to produce a product.

When making an item, a designer can go to a computer module, see a product’s Higgs score and swap out fabrics or labor with low sustainability scores for better, more sustainable options.

Today, some 250 recognized brands—40 percent of the global apparel and footwear market, including Adidas, Nike and The North Face—have joined the coalition, which also includes big-name retailers such as JCPenney and Target, as well as chemical manufacturer DuPont.

Taking a stand

But Patagonia’s in-house Common Threads Partnership was a more controversial attempt at bolstering sustainability.

In November 2011, the company denounced consumerism in a full-page ad in The New York Times. The Black Friday ad read “Don’t Buy This Jacket.” The polyester R2 jacket displayed, it read, left behind two-thirds of its weight in waste.

Consumers were asked to take the Common Threads Partnership pledge to reuse, repair, and recycle items purchased from the company.

Ridgeway acknowledged “tension” among Patagonia executives over the initiative, and whether an apparel company should be telling consumers not to buy its products.

“What happens if we succeed and disposable apparel goes away?” Ridgeway asked. “What does that do when you (MIT students) get out of here? No one has the answers for that, but we have to start thinking of that seriously.”

The 2011 ad campaign did not hurt Patagonia sales, and the company saw revenue increase to $540 million in 2012, according to a report in Inc. magazine.

“We’d love at end of the day to be an example of how companies can survive and even thrive in an economy of restricted and diminished resources,” Ridgeway said in an interview after his remarks. “It is our goal that we can show the way or at least be among the group of companies that show the way.”

This was the fifth annual sustainability summit hosted by MIT Sloan. This year’s theme, “Empowering Action,” echoed MIT’s motto of “mens et manus,” Latin for “mind and hand.”

In that spirit, conference organizer Jeffrey Sun, MBA ’14, said this year’s event included a second day of workshops for organizations facing sustainability challenges so that attendees could take what they learned in the first day and put it into practice the next day.

“It combines action learning with the intellectual,” Sun said. “We’re really getting our hands dirty solving these challenges.”