Patagonia and The North Face: saving the world one puffer jacket at a time
The Long Read: Patagonia and The North Face are not only locked in a fierce battle to sell the most outdoor gear but also for ethical authenticity. Can they make vast profits without harming the planet?
On the night of his 30th birthday, after a few drinks, Dean Karnazes decided that he would celebrate by running all the way from San Francisco down the coast to the town of Half Moon Bay, a distance of 30 miles. So began a career as an endurance runner. He has run 50 marathons in 50 consecutive days in all 50 states, and taken part in such extreme competitions as a marathon to the South Pole and a 135-mile race through Death Valley, one of the hottest places on Earth. Karnazes once ran 350 miles in 81 hours and 44 minutes, without stopping to sleep. His account of his feats of distance running, Ultramarathon Man, is a bestseller. Karnazess superhuman exertions are sponsored by The North Face, the company that make the kit he wears in his coaching videos.
The North Face, a Bay Area-based outdoor clothing manufacturer, sells garments and gear for climbing, backpacking, running, and skiing. Its stores are decorated with huge photographs of people climbing icy peaks and running through meadows. Central to the brands ethos are the professional athletes it sponsors, people not widely known but celebrated in their fields names such as Karnazes and Pete Athans, who has climbed Everest seven times. The North Face sells the idea of adventure of pushing limits whether running long distances, climbing an untried rockface, or sleeping outside at sub-zero temperatures. Its tagline is never stop exploring. (We have actually been approached with partnerships about spacesuits to Mars and things like that, one publicist told me recently.)
This canny marketing of adventure has made The North Face the dominant player in a booming outdoor-wear market a $4bn industry in the US alone. And its closest rival in the contest to sell the thrill of the wilderness to the masses may be a company whose origins and history are tightly intertwined with its own: Patagonia.
If The North Face aims to appeal to the overachieving weekend warrior, Patagonia is for the slightly more mellow soul who wants to soak up the fresh air and enjoy the view as he ascends a craggy mountain. The companys ethos is encapsulated in Let My People Go Surfing, the memoir-cum-management classic about Patagonia, by the companys founder Yvon Chouinard reissued last year in a 10th-anniversary edition, with a new introduction by Naomi Klein. The book contains lavish colour pictures of people in genial communion with nature. To browse the book is to dive into a world of life-affirming outdoor feats followed by nights around the fire, swapping heroic tales.
Unlike other billion-dollar sports brands, neither company sells balls or bats. They do not cater to team sports. They are, above all, selling the allure of the great outdoors, offering their customers technically advanced gear for going off into the wilds with a friend or two. (Or, if you prefer, alone: the cover of the winter 2016 Patagonia catalogue features a man on a motorbike carrying a pair of skis under one arm smiling at a squirrel as it crosses the road.)
Both companies understand that the appeal of endurance sports has something to do with acquiring kit that boasts the most advanced technology. For genuine adventure, their marketing implies, you need top-quality gear. And top-quality gear designed to withstand the harshest conditions and last a lifetime does not come cheap. You can buy an Inferno sleeping bag from The North Face that will, for $729 (593), keep you warm in temperatures as cold as -40C. For $529 (430), you can get a neoprene-free, natural rubber, hooded wetsuit from Patagonia for use in water temperatures down to 0C.
Both companies also understand that the largest market for their products is not explorers stocking up for Arctic expeditions. The real money comes from selling products designed for hardcore outdoor adventure to urban customers who lead relatively unadventurous lives. For the most part, people wear North Face and Patagonia gear while doing everyday things: cycling, shopping, walking the dog. You can take a backpack to school but you feel like youre in Yosemite just because it says North Face, Dean Karnazes told me one afternoon in San Francisco. I think that aspirational element is really big.
Its a sales pitch that has yielded big profits. The North Face reported annual revenue of $2.3bn last year, with 200 stores around the world. Patagonia is smaller, but growing more rapidly. The company had sales of $800m in 2016, twice as much as in 2010, and has 29 standalone stores in the US, 23 in Japan, and others in locations such as Chamonix, the French ski resort.
While The North Face sells $5,500 (4,480) two-metre tents and Patagonia sells $629 waders for fly fishing, many of the most popular products for both companies are everyday wear: waterproof anoraks, leggings, fleeces, and, most important of all, puffer jackets. Everyone is trying to reinvent and reinterpret the black puffy jacket, said Jeff Crook, the chief product officer at Mountain Equipment Co-Op, an outdoor department store that has 20 stores across Canada, whether it spends most of its time on the mountain peak or at the bus stop.
The flagship jackets for both companies are the product of decades of technological refinement to make them increasingly warm, durable, and light. The most advanced models today have been engineered to solve the problem of how to insulate the wearer against cold and wet while remaining breathable so you dont overheat while youre scaling that cliff face. At Patagonia, there is the Nano-Air ($249; 180 in the UK), a quilted, but not very puffy, water resistant jacket that uses a trademarked synthetic insulation that the company described as revolutionary upon its release in 2014. The North Face Thermoball ($199; 150) has its own proprietary synthetic insulation, which uses clusters of fibre to trap heat in a manner that mimics down. Both jackets are fit for a mountaineering expedition, but are each more likely to be bought to keep warm while taking the kids to the park.
Neither company regards the other as a rival at least not publicly. But aside from the fact they sell the same kind of stuff to the same kind of customers (urban, affluent), the two companies have quite a bit of shared history. Doug Tompkins, co-founder of The North Face, and Yvon Chouinard were lifelong friends and brothers in adventure. Both men started out making their own specialist equipment; both went on to found companies selling outdoor wear; both felt distinctly uncomfortable doing office jobs, and still more uncomfortable running companies.
Ive been a businessman for almost 60 years, Chouinard writes in the introduction to Let My People Go Surfing. Its as difficult for me to say those words as it is for someone to admit being an alcoholic or lawyer. And together, while promoting the glories of exploring the unspoiled wilderness, both men have been central to the mass popularisation of outdoor activities such as hiking and climbing, which may, in turn, make nature a little less unspoiled.
Selling professional-grade gear to people with no intention of using it professionally isnt exactly a new trick in marketing, as the makers of SUVs, digital cameras and headphones can tell you. Most people who buy the Nike trainers advertised by Mo Farah dont use them to run long distances.
But North Face and Patagonia are both wrestling with a more consequential paradox, one that is central to contemporary consumerism: we want to feel morally good about the things we buy. And both companies have been phenomenally successful because they have crafted an image that is about more than just being ethical and environmentally friendly, but about nature, adventure, exploration ideas more grandiose than simply selling you a jacket, taking your money and trying not to harm the earth too much along the way. But the paradox is that by presenting themselves this way, they are selling a lot more jackets. In other words, both companies are selling stuff in part by looking like theyre not trying too hard to sell stuff, which helps them sell more stuff and fills the world with more and more stuff.
You might call this the authenticity problem. And for all their similarities, the two companies are taking radically different approaches to solving it.
Doug Tompkins and Yvon Choiunard were the kind of outcast adolescents who found a home in the great outdoors. Both men became passionate about climbing and surfing in the American west in the middle of the last century. Back in the 1950s and 60s, climbing was an unusual sport with just a small group of renegades who were, you know, misfits, said Rick Ridgeway, an accomplished mountaineer and adventurer. (Rolling Stone magazine once called him The Real Indiana Jones.) An old friend of both Tompkins and Choiunard, he is now vice president for public engagement at Patagonia.
Both The North Face and Patagonia have their roots in exploring the sort of remote places about which guidebooks had not been written. In those days, getting back to uncorrupted nature and reading Thoreau by the campfire slotted in well with the nascent counterculture. We took special pride in the fact that climbing rocks and icefalls had no economic value in society, Chouinard wrote in Let My People Go Surfing.
Tompkins opened the first The North Face retail store selling mountaineering equipment in the North Beach neighbourhood of San Francisco in 1966. The Grateful Dead played at the opening, and there was a fashion show featuring Joan Baez and her sister, the late singer and activist Mimi Faria.
In Southern California, Chouinard, who was among the pioneers of what has since become known as the golden age of Yosemite climbing, had begun making his own equipment in the late 1950s. At first, he created and forged reusable steel pitons that were hammered into rock faces and then removed. Then, to help preserve climbing routes from disfigurement, Chouinard changed to aluminium chocks that could be wedged in by hand and did not leave a trace behind. The ambition at the time was to do as little damage as possible as the Sierra climber Doug Robinson put it: Organic climbing for the natural man.
The two men met in the mid-60s when Tompkins began to distribute Chouinards equipment through The North Face. Early in their friendship, a white-water kayaking trip together in California ended with Chouinard getting 15 stitches in his face. And in 1968 the two drove a Ford Econoline van from Ventura, California, to the remote region of Chile and Argentina named Patagonia.
That same year, Tompkins sold his stake in The North Face for $50,000, and with his then wife, Susie, founded the San Francisco-based casualwear brand Esprit, whose hip version of sportswear became synonymous with 1980s style. After reading Bill Devalls environmental call to arms Deep Ecology: Living as if Nature Mattered in the 1980s, Tompkins decided to leave the apparel business and devote himself full time to saving the environment. By the time Esprit was sold in 1990, its annual sales were estimated to be $1bn.
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