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Will Shoppers Ever Care About the Destruction of the Planet?

Here is an inconvenient truth. For all the noise made by activists, journalists, politicians and even celebrities about the clothing industry destroying the planet, shoppers aren’t listening.

The information is out there if they want it. Google can produce more than 88 million search results on why fashion is bad for the environment, but the world remains in a state of cognitive dissonance, fueled by its voracious appetite for disposable trends. Global apparel consumption, currently at 62 million tons per year, is by some estimates projected to reach 102 million tons annually by 2030.

One problem, say many industry observers, is that much of the messaging about fashion and sustainability can be too boring, too preachy and too easy to ignore. So is it possible to change the way we talk about it?

This week, the outdoor apparel brand Patagonia released a quirky new film that reflects the company’s efforts to reset the conversation. “The Shitthropocene,” a 45-minute documentary directed by David Garrett Byars, is a trippy mock anthropological view of humanity’s consumption habits from our cave-dwelling ancestors through the trendsetting aristocratic court of Louis XIV, creepy fairgrounds, fishing waders with leaky crotches, mindless digital advertising and pretty much everything in between. It will be shown in Patagonia stores across the United States in coming months.

The cheeky romp toggles between a marketing yarn for Patagonia and the way they make their products, information about the climate crisis, consumer psychology and relentless attempts at humor that range from outlandish satire to the knowingly juvenile. The title is a scatological wink at the word anthropocene, a term used to describe the time during which humans have had a substantial impact on our planet, a fitting clue to viewers of what lies in store.

“Many scientists and historians think we’re entering into a new epoch — one where things are simply … well, crappier,” declares the opening voice-over in a thick northern English accent (regularly used in Britain to indicate no-nonsense, tongue-in-cheek pragmatism). YouTube commenters on the trailer point to similarities — perhaps intentional, perhaps unintentional — to the fictional British television correspondent Philomena Cunk as she attempts to cover all of human history with sardonic humor and deadpan naïveté.

Vanilla corporate lingo this is not, though it’s on brand for Patagonia. After all, the company was behind the audacious “Don’t Buy This Jacket” advertising campaign released on Black Friday in 2011, encouraging people to purchase only what they need and reconsider their effect on the environment. In 2022, its billionaire founder, Yvon Chouinard, placed the company finances into a special trust that ensured its profits would be used to combat climate change.

Patagonia Films has previously produced straight-talking films targeting the salmon fishing industry and rising oceans, hydropower dams and America’s public lands. Other labels, including Puma and Diesel, have invested in documentaries about their supply chains that are generally intended to be promoted on social media platforms. But Patagonia likes to define itself by doing things differently.

Is it a gamble that pays off?

Not really. The sheer scope of information covered in 45 minutes is vast and ambitious, with a good array of talking heads eloquently dissecting why fashion keeps us hungry for more even when we know its damaging effect on the world around us. Mr. Byars is also rightly aware of the complications of having a brand that sells products sponsoring his movie. It is referred to frequently by the narrator, including in a sendup of corporate greenwashing in a fake ad praising Patagonia for “making fleeces from upcycled Subarus and, contrary to laws of physics, creating more water for planet.”

But the movie jumps around at a breakneck pace from one eye-popping scene and concept to the next. It may be imitating society’s dwindling ability to pay attention or linger on pressing matters, but it’s also the literal enactment of it.

Maybe I’m not down with the kids, but a lot of the gags about cave man “bits,” corporate muttonheads, being philoso-fecal and scientists from New Zealand who don’t wear pants felt rather half-baked. And though the movie ends on the positive note that humans are clever creatures who can and should reassess what makes us feel happy and fulfilled — spoiler alert, look to full hearts and lives of purpose rather than a heaving closet — I felt overloaded, overstimulated and needed to take a nap.

Genuine progress is hard to come by. Attempts at something to engage new audiences should also be applauded, especially when most current conversations about materialism in a time of climate breakdown appear limited in impact.

That said, maybe next time, Patagonia should cut the crap.


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