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Patagonia & Sustainability Messaging In The Outdoor Industry


Chris Ann Goddard, President & Founder CGPR

Today on THE ROCK FIGHT (an outdoor podcast that aims for the head) we're digging into how the brands of the outdoor industry talks about sustainability.


Chris Goddard is the founder of CGPR, a PR agency (a member of Off Madison Ave) that works with outdoor brands like Houdini, Lowa and Nite Ize. Chris recently posted on LinkedIn an article about Patagonia's new marketing campaign Fashion Is None Of Our Business which promptly blew up.


The engagement on that post was off the charts with many supporting Patagonia's new messaging and many detractors calling the brand out.


Today Colin sits down with Chris to talk about how brands engage on a topic like sustainability and how those on the messaging side need to approach working with brands on sensitive topics.


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Episode Transcript


Colin (00:08):

Welcome to the Rock Fight where we speak our truths, slay sacred cows, and sometimes agree to disagree. This is an outdoor podcast that aims for the head, and today we're talking about brand messaging with a PR professional, a conversation that was inspired by Patagonia's latest marketing campaign. But first, before we get to that, have you joined the Rock Fight mailing list yet? Head to rock fight.co right now and sign up for news from the Front Rock Fight's Weekly newsletter. And then make sure you are subscribed to the rock fight wherever you are listening to my voice right now by clicking follow. These simple things are the best way to support this show. We really appreciate it. Thank you so much. Alright, let's get into it. A couple of weeks back, Patagonia rolled out a new marketing campaign centered around the tagline. Fashion is none of our business For a brand that has historically been recognized for both their social awareness and their borderline anti-capitalist marketing initiatives, I felt that fashion is none of our business was a bit of a letdown.

(01:09):

Patagonia used to rely on a motto that was realistic and effective, build the best product cause no unnecessary harm that really said it all. It was like, Hey, we're going to make stuff but we're always going to do it the best way possible. Then they switched to we're in business to save our home planet that felt a little less genuine, even if it was more aspirational. Fashion is none of our business borders on disingenuous. A lot of Patagonia's line actually, frankly, the majority of their line is fashion based. So while yes, I understand the point is they're making well-made and long lasting products saying it's none of your business when it is. Definitely your business can come across as a little tone deaf, but this also highlighted the line that brands have to straddle to both come across as environmentally driven while still focusing on profits and how their messaging is a crucial part of that equation.

(02:01):

Shortly after the announcement from Patagonia, Chris Goddard, who is the founder of CGPR, a PR agency who recently joined off Madison Avenue and works with outdoor brands like Houdini, LOA and Night Eyes posted about the Patagonia campaign on LinkedIn and the Post blew up, blew up over 200,000 impressions from all over the world and close to a hundred comments with posters both praising the campaign and detractors of which perhaps I was one calling Patagonia out. Now we talk a lot about sustainability on the show and Chris's post got me thinking about the messaging behind sustainability, especially from brands who are making the stuff we want to see made more sustainably. So Chris is here today to talk about her experiences working as a PR professional smack dab at the intersection of brands and how they engage with the world. Welcome back to the Rock Flight, where today it's the messaging of sustainability with Chris Goddard. Alright, well we're here today with Chris Goddard of CGPR. Welcome to the show, Chris. It's been a long time coming. I'm glad we finally got you on here. This is going to be a great topic to talk about.

Chris (03:09):

Look forward to diving in. Colin. Thanks for having me.

Colin (03:12):

Yeah, of course. So over the past 40 years, I always make it 40 years and I kind of look at the beginning of the modern outdoor industry as sort of the textile revolution coming out of the 1970s. Maybe that's my polar tech background or whatever, but it kind of feels like that's when things really started to catapult forward. But the industry largely positioned itself as a leader in the sustainability movement inside of the fashion world based on innovation of better materials, the perception of an investment of wanting to protect our outdoor playgrounds. Now you recently wrote a blog on your learnings from the Sourcing journal sustainability summit show, the show that shows that we still have a long way to go, I feel like when it comes to improving how we make things. So starting with kind of just big picture, as someone who's made a career in media and brand relations, promoting brand messaging, how do you feel the outdoor world is doing when it comes to making stuff and how brands talk about making stuff sitting here in 2024?

Chris (04:07):

I mean, it's a really good question. Thanks for asking that. I think that it is a work in progress, but we're certainly further along than we were 40 years ago when we were at Outdoor Retailer and you had revolutionary leaders who had just come from their garages bringing their goods to the show. But I think it's definitely a work in progress. The world has changed, technology has changed and I think change is hard, but I think we're certainly much more further along than we have. And I also think that we have been, to your point, we have been an inspiration for the fashion world and now I think that the two are at a very close intersection and have been for a long time. Meaning I like to say that the outdoor world likes to be fashionable, but the fashion world likes to be outdoor. So I think it's a work in progress, but there's definitely been a lot of progress.

Colin (05:01):

Yeah, I was talking with Ken Pucker about a year ago. He was one of the first guests we had on and we were chatting. Good guy. Great. Ken's the best. I'm sure you've known Ken for a while.

Chris (05:09):

Yeah, otherwise, I'm dating myself though.

Colin (05:12):

I'm kind of dating myself. He was my COO 20 years ago. I know I was at Timberland, but we talked a lot about how we want to see brands do better, do more, and it's for a long time it's almost been like, well, consumer engagement needs to drive what the brands want to do. Definitely. Obviously I rag on brands a lot on this podcast because it just kind of comes down to do what you say you're going to do, those kinds of things. But it's also sometimes hard to get too mad at brands when it's like, listen, they're there to make money. And I think sometimes the greenwashing takes away from the fact that people, I dunno, they don't really recognize the fact that these are for-profit enterprises who are just put that as their number one concern. And at the same time, the larger fashion world is a lot more dirty than the outdoor world. And so it's this kind of weird push and pull of how do we continue to do better but also message the right way so that consumers understand where they should put their money. Does that make sense? I mean

Chris (06:13):

I think it's a question of finding a balance. Obviously brands have to be true to their products and true to their mission and true to their authenticity, but they still have to communicate in an engaging way to their consumers. And I think if I learned anything from the Sourcing journal sustainability summit that had companies from around the world, it's that the industries both fashion and outdoor need to do a better job of explaining what this sustainability thing is. I mean, how complicated does the hang tag have to be or messaging? It has to be in a form that's going to enable the consumer to make the right choice at retail, but without having all the question marks go off, what is all this stuff? So I think it's a question of being clear and concise and consistent, but there are so many factors that go into how a brand portrays itself these days, which has changed significantly, Kyle, and I mean since 40 years ago. It it's a different world.

Colin (07:10):

Well, I think that's part of the messaging that needs to improve, right? Because the industry has founded on these technical achievements that will allow you to go from before it was you can stay outside as long as you can last. And now with all these new things, it's like, well, you can stay outside as long as you want because all these new products will keep you warm, dry, cool, and safe depending on the environment that you're in. And for the last 20 years or so, I feel like there hasn't been as many breakthroughs yet. The industry still leans heavily on that even though we have billion dollar brands, which we know what fraction of that billion dollars is coming from technical apparel or gear. And that's where I think the brands deserve some criticism. It's like you're still sort of presenting yourself as like, hey, I mean even the recent Patagonia, not that immediately get on that, but it just sort of say, Hey, everything we make, it has a purpose. It's like, well actually most of the stuff you make is more casual and you're using the heritage of the outdoors of the technical apparel and gear and things like that to present who you are, but largely people are just wearing yourself to wear around. So there is, I think some criticism that the brands could take on of are you really being honest about who you actually are if all you're saying that you are is a technical outdoor brand.

Chris (08:21):

Well, I think authenticity is so key right now because you've seen brands that are not authentic crash and burn and you really have to be consistent in your messaging. That's true. And to Patagonia is a good example of a brand that has been consistent in its point of view from the president has stole your land to Don, don't buy this jacket. Consistency and authenticity allows you to take a stand and even if it's pointed, but there is a method to the magic there. So I think just a question of being true to who you are and who your consumers are and the brands that don't do that are not going to do well, especially in today's environment where consumers are putting so much more value on aligning with brands that they feel are doing good things and consumers will see through the fake claims. And you've seen that. I mean, you've definitely seen that already. You see it all the time.

Colin (09:23):

Well, I think the ownership piece of it is where there's a through line there, even Patagonia being a billion dollar brand and they're easy to both defend and maybe even criticize, but at the same time, there is an authenticity they have, even if you want to get nitpicky about some things. And it's been ARD the entire time until they sold the brand to the earth a couple of years ago. At the same time, the other big brands are all owned by publicly traded entities where it is, it's a profit over anything else sort of situation for them. But then the smaller still privately held up and coming brands are I think where you really see the true authenticity of the industry. And that's where, because it's still the message, it's still the founding principles. If I buy a brand today because I want to make money off of it, well, I can say that I'm going to state to those founding principles, but really there's a reason why I purchased that. If you're VF acquiring the North Face or one of these other companies, but someone who's just growing it and has this idea of I want to do a brand that does X, Y and Z and they're still driving towards that mission, then that's kind of where I think the authenticity still really exists in the outdoor space.

Chris (10:26):

I mean, I would definitely agree. I think if you look at a brand like Houdini, which is relatively, it's certainly not as big as Patagonia, but to her credit, Ava Carlson, who's the CEO has always been about circularity and they have a really interesting eight point design checklist that looks at the origin of each product. It does it have a purpose? Will it be around, can we repurpose it, can we repair it? Do we really need it? And so it's also making sure that that messaging comes through in every place that they are. And as you know, they just opened up Houdini Circle, which is the only store in the world where a consumer can walk in and either purchase new, trade it in rent repair, or just bring it to drop off. So brands, regardless of their size, can be true and have sustainable messaging as long as there are authentic and as long as they are consistent. It really comes down to those two. So you don't have a billion dollar brand, but

Colin (11:30):

What have you learned from Houdini from a messaging point of view as a sort of PR professional, right, because I got to engage in Enable a little bit during my time at Polar Tech, but they were international account and I was a North American guy, but I got to go to some trade shows and at least say hello and sit in some meetings. And my takeaway was always, I think if she decided that the best thing to do would be for Houdini to fold up shop, I think she'd have no problem doing that. I think she's like, all right, the right thing to do is for us to close up. I'm not saying that's true, that was just my personal takeaway. But there's power in that, right? Real, the company feels very grounded in principled, and I've always praised them because I think they're may be one of the only brands who are truly consistently using the word circularity in their marketing and what they do. When you've worked really closely with them, when you listen to how they talk about things, have you been able to take away any sort of the messaging points for how you then engage with other folks? Yeah,

Chris (12:24):

I mean, I think Houdini Sportswear messaging is pure, it's honest and it's simple. And that comes through in the design of their apparel. I mean, their apparel is versatile, it's durable, and they make it so you can continue to wear it and hopefully never get rid of it. So I really think it goes back to what I said in the beginning about having messaging that is simple and clear and honest and transparent and something that stays no matter what you do, whether it's on your website or on your Instagram or in store, it's really about those guiding principles.

Colin (13:02):

So a couple of things you wrote in your blog and some takeaways you had from the sustainability summit. The one that kind of caught my eye first was the perpetual state of confusion when it comes to shopping for more sustainable items. And this kind of goes back, I think what I was saying about my conversation with Ken about putting the pressure on the consumer, because like you said, Houdini is a good segue into this. They're very consistent of that. They're using terminology that they want to see further, making things better, having items last a long lifetime, all that verbiage, circularity, secondhand, whatever it is. On the flip side, you have someone like RAB who, we've had Tim Fish on this podcast before and we've talked a lot about their cinder line. They've, they're going more with an ingredient listing in the thing you just bought.

(13:47):

We're being transparent about what's in, oh yes, there is PFAS in the zipper, or there's only 84% recycled content versus this piece, which is a hundred percent recycled content. And I think that's applause for them for doing that. At the same time, it's a little more confusing than maybe kind of keeping it basic for the consumer. And then I think the third part of maybe this pie is then you have consumers who are then it's easy to be sucked in by the marketing of Aian or a Temu or somebody, somebody who's just making fast fashion marketing it at a great price, great in air quotes, price cheap, but it's, it's just preying on the passion of I want that item now. So you have sort of all these kind of conflicting messages, which I feel kind of plays into what you're saying is that perpetual state of confusion. So why did you think that was something important to call out in your blog post? Well, I

Chris (14:31):

Think the perpetual state of confusion is probably three or four nuggets. The first nugget is the perpetual state of confusion for the regulation, the regulation coming out of the eu, the regulation coming out of California and New York. I think that is confusing a lot of brands and designers. And the question is, as one person said at the sustainability summit, it's a tsunami, it's coming, and maybe that's

Colin (14:58):

What the regulation is coming,

Chris (14:59):

Maybe it will force our hand. The second thing is confusion for again, the messaging to the consumer. What do I believe? Where do I find it? How do I factor that into my purchase decision? So when I say perpetual state of confusion, it's at retail, it's online, and it's the world of regulation. And that came through loud and clear at this one day event.

Colin (15:25):

That's true. An important thing to remember. And I think Justin Hausman, my typical co-host on a lot of episodes said this recently of we are totally in the 1% in this because we've made our career in these spots. We understand it. Most people are just walking into a Dick's or an REI or an h and m or a Macy's and going, oh, that looks cool. I'll buy that. And they're not thinking it is truly a passion purchase. And I'm sure I've said this on this podcast, I've said it a million times. It's like, what is the organic sticker equivalent? So you have an apple next to another apple and one has a sticker and one does it, and you go, maybe you don't understand what organic farming means, but you go, well, I guess this one's better. And you pick it up and you get the organic one. It's hard to figure out what that could even be for apparel or even

Chris (16:06):

Here. I think the other thing, Colin, is that there's still this mindset from brands that you always have to offer something new every season, every fall.

Colin (16:13):

Totally. Right.

Chris (16:14):

And the fashion shows are certainly an example of where that takes place. Now, they certainly have recognized, whether it's Paris Fashion Week or Milan Fashion Week, those fashion brands have certainly recognized what is wrong with that, but you still have consumers demanding that. So it's a little bit of a push pull kind of thing. Another state of confusion.

Colin (16:37):

Well, right. And I think it's probably going to get messier before it gets better, right? The tsunami of regulation, I mean the PFAS thing we're going on is a great C for a variety of reasons. One, we've known for a long time that PFAS is not good, but it's another example of, well, brands are taking action now when them being demanded that they do so, which is fine, we got there, what's happening? But it's an interesting thing to reflect on because I've talked to retailers who are like, we're going to have a real problem in about nine months. Brands don't want to take stuff back. Brands can't fulfill non PFA S orders. So there's going to be inventory pluses and minuses depending on which end of the spectrum you're on. And then you have the consumer. Again, I asked Justin a few months ago, are you planning on doing anything? What should I do? I have this great Patagonia shell that I've had since 2013. That's in terrific shape. I guarantee you can get probably another 15, 20 years out of it. Am I supposed to get rid of it now? No. Does that mean, I know I put it in a landfill, so it's going to continue to be muddy waters, it feels like for some time here. I

Chris (17:36):

Mean, I don't disagree, but the good thing is that you have all these experts and scientists and designers working towards making progress. And so it may be slow and steady as she goes, but I think we'll be in a better place. I also think that the economy impacts everything for American consumers, regardless of whether you're buying an outdoor jacket or footwear. It's definitely clouding our thinking and probably will do so until we get through this election. And so I don't think that helps or simplifies consumer choices when it comes to buying a pair of boots or a fleece or a jacket. So you have all this, it's like the perfect storm, if you will, of things that are coming and making a difference for brands and retailers and consumers.

Colin (18:25):

So take us behind the scenes when you're working with brands, because obviously you're controlling a lot of their messaging on the front end, or at least in influencing how they present to the public. Do these conversations come up, do brands, are they curious about consumer engagement with how they're presenting from a sustainable point of view? Is it a little verboten? We don't want to talk about that because confused by it.

Chris (18:47):

No, I mean we're really privileged to, and we're just celebrating 30 years to work with an amazing group of iconic brands from Adidas Outdoor to Jack Wolf and to Heli Hansen, to Merrill, to loa. And all of these brands have amazing technology and expertise and point of view on what's important to them and what resonates with the consumer and also what's true to their heritage. So they have a pretty good idea of how to explain that to consumers. I would say it's a collaborative effort for us to talk about what's going to resonate and what's not going to resonate when we're presenting a product attribute. But the thinking and the technology obviously comes from them. I would say that we work together to talk about messaging that's going to resonate not only with consumers, but with editors too. It's really important that our messaging is clear and simple and authentic and concise.

Colin (19:44):

I've sat inside of brands. I mean, that's sometimes hard. Sometimes you do end up a little high on your own supply and sometimes you feel like we're not greenwashing, we're being transparent, and it's difficult to, I did that on the sales side with folks when they're trying to buy fabric from me, and it's sort of like they have certain requests, we want these things, and then you show them the perfect fabric that they're looking for, but it's too expensive, so they buy the cheaper thing that isn't quite as good. So I'm sure you've found yourself sort of straddling that lines at time. Is there open to listen sometimes or does it depend on the client?

Chris (20:14):

I mean, again, thankfully over 30 years, I like to think that some people listen to us. I mean, I hope so, and hopefully it's been reason for our longevity. But again, I think it's a collaborative conversation that has to take place. None of our brands have ever been shy about talking about things that they think are important, especially when it comes to technology and design and benefit to the consumer. But it is about, again, going back to I sound like a broken record, being authentic and consistent and true to who you are.

Colin (20:47):

So one thing that kind of inspired this conversation was you had a recent post from the new campaign from Patagonia that I alluded to earlier on LinkedIn. It caused quite a stir. I may have commented on them a couple times, maybe I like to chime in, but I think it showed how a brand Patagonia can sort of elevate to almost like mythical status. It's sort of in almost a religious kind of way. There's a lot of consumers who are going to defend a brand like that at all costs, and there's going to be other people who are skeptical of their good intentions. Sometimes maybe when there's not even reason to be skeptical, people just kind of go that way. I think this is a good example of maybe some criticism was earned, hence my comments. But anyway, what were your general takeaways from, I mean, last time I looked, you just told me it was about 200,000 impressions. It was nearly a hundred comments the last time I looked. It might be over a hundred by

Chris (21:35):

Now. I think it's close to over 270,000 impressions. First of all, I never ever expected those kinds of numbers, but it tells me a couple things. One, it hit a nerve clearly. Two, there's a lot of passion in this industry, and that's one of the rich and fantastic reasons that we're part of it because people are passionate about how the outdoors makes us feel and they care about the industry. And three, it also shows that there's an amazing community and there's room for differing opinions and also it sparked conversation. And so all of those things are good, and it doesn't matter that some of the remarks were negative and that were very positive. And there were lots of people from all over the world that commented. But I think it's a good thing and it shows that we hit on an important topic. And to have that kind of discussion elevated, I think post was really interesting that she was just glader. Yeah, the photographer talking about the fact that the photo of her husband elevated the discussion. And I think that's really what it's about. It's elevating the discussion and I think it's pretty amazing.

Colin (22:52):

Yeah, I mean in classic Patagonia form, I like the overall message of the campaign. My nitpick was sort of like, well, fashion does seem to matter to you on some level if you look at the range. But that's again, kind of a little bit more of my inside baseball view of things versus how most people in the world are going to engage with their ads. And largely, I can admit that largely it's a much more positive campaign compared to what a lot of folks are willing to say in the outdoor space. And I think, I dunno, there's an earnestness that comes from the outdoor industry and I think because it all comes from this earnest place of how much we love to go outside, and I think that's where we should be kind of a ground zero epicenter of the fashion world. I mean, outdoor stuff gets made the same way that fashion stuff gets made. So it's kind of shared practices. Then it comes down to just practices and materials. But that earnest can also lead to it's easy to get sucked in by greenwashing. I feel like if you're coming from this place, you want to believe that all of these companies that you're buying things from that enable your outdoor experiences are all doing it the right way. So I guess one of the last things to talk about is what are some realistic expectation for brands when it comes to their sustainable practices and messaging? I

Chris (24:02):

Mean, I just want to go back to one thing that you said earlier about the intersection of fashion and outdoor and high sym presented a really interesting white paper at ispo, which is all about the new outdoors. And that it's not so much about extremism, it's about expressionism and creativity. And the outdoors is not so much climbing ever. It's going out to your backyard or it's going out to your local park and those worlds will continue to collide. And so I think that's important, but to your question about what brands can expect moving forward with regard to greenwashing, I think consumers are still going to be looking at brands to do the right thing. And I think brands are still going to be committed to do what that is. And again, it's a work in progress. I think there has to be research and thoughtfulness and strategic thinking, and you just have to be authentic to your mission and just be true, be true to your brand.

(24:58):

Consumers will be able to recognize the brands that are not truthful and that are going out on a limb, and that's not going to be good for any brand. It's really hard to come back from that once you have disappointing consumers or have taken a wrong turn, that's really hard. So it's really about being authentic and doing the right thing, whatever it means for that brand. No, the overriding thing that just throw in here as a last comment. Before my PR career, I was in politics for 10 years in DC I was a lobbyist on energy and environment and worked for the mayor of New York and it was a congressional liaison for the Department of Interior and the chaos, then it was chaotic, it was sort of crazy. But now the total chaos is impacting all of this. It's impacting the consumer, it's impacting the brands, it's impacting the designer. This general state of unrest is just making everything more challenging and difficult and people want a frigging break and the outdoors is still a good remedy and that's why all of this matters. So it was a roundabout way of saying that all of this outdoor stuff really matters.

Colin (26:18):

Alright, well we can wrap it up there. What's happening in Marblehead? Is it nice out you going to get outside today? Let's talk about that instead of silly things.

Chris (26:27):

Marblehead, as you know, has a beautiful harbor and where big water fans, big sailor and our boat is going to go in the water very soon. And she's named Labrador after our three Labrador retrievers.

Colin (26:44):

Do they all go on the boat with you?

Chris (26:46):

Well, one's a 15 week old puppy, so we'll see.

Colin (26:48):

Oh, okay. You told me you're getting a puppy. Well, how's the puppy?

Chris (26:52):

She's a puppy

Colin (26:55):

At a lab puppy,

Chris (26:57):

But I'm looking at the harbor now and I'm starting to see sailboats in the harbor and that makes me smile. It's all good.

Colin (27:03):

Yeah, well it's definitely getting me close to lobster roll by the water season in New England, which I will be jealous about that. That's my favorite time of year.

Chris (27:10):

Yes, no, I'm ready for summer. I'm looking forward to spending some time. Ding on the water. That's where I go to escape.

Colin (27:19):

Right on. Well thanks for coming on Chris, really appreciate it.

Chris (27:22):

Thanks Colin.

Colin (27:23):

Alright, that's the show for today. Like I said at the beginning, please click follow on those podcast apps. We'd love for you to subscribe to the show and also head over to rock fight.co. Subscribe to our newsletter, comes out every Sunday. You're going to get all sorts of goodies in there, stuff you really can't get on the website to a much, much later. So please subscribe to our mailing list. Big thanks to my guest, Chris Goddard for coming on the show and talking to me today. And the Rock Fight is a production of Rock Fight LLC. I'm Colin. True. Thank you for listening. And here to take us out. He's my guy in your guy. Chris De Makes, he's probably on tour somewhere. Actually, I think he's at the Punk Rock Museum. I heard he was giving tours again there. Anyway, it doesn't matter. Krista makes he's here. He's going to sing the Rock Fight Fight song for you right now. We'll see you next time. Rock fighters Rock.

Chris DeMakes (28:15):

We go into the rock bike where we speak our truth, stay sacred cows and sometimes agree to disagree. We talk about human power and outdoor activities. And big bikes are about topics that we find interesting like my culture, music, the latest movie reviews, ideas in for the head. This is where we speak our truth. This is where we speak our truth. Welcome to the the.


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