The risk of reducing sustainability to a joke

Patagonia publishes a long and hilarious documentary, comical right from the title (‘Shittropocene’), to convince the public to think more before giving in to compulsive shopping. It is an interesting operation that speaks of sustainability, but with a major limitation

by Roberto Procaccini


Every tool is legitimate in discussing green fashion with as wide an audience as possible. Using the register of irony and self-mockery, then, is not only a legitimate but also an apt move, especially when others on the same subject tend to take themselves very seriously. The risk, however, is to reduce sustainability to a joke, where everything is very nice, but serious things are not treated with the necessary depth. Patagonia, which has released a documentary on its social media that is comical right from the title (‘Shittropocene’, which can be translated as ‘the age of human shit’), shows the vices and virtues of such an operation in one fell swoop.

The virtues: it makes you laugh but also reflect

Shittropocene is a parody of ‘Anthropocene’, i.e. the definition of our geological era: the first one deeply marked by human activities. In 46 minutes, the documentary by Patagonia, the Californian outdoor clothing brand, reflects on the environmental impact that individual consumers have with their purchases. And, even more, on the responsibilities of the fashion industry, which, with the levers of marketing, distorts the ancestral impulses of human self-gratification in favour of the shopping spree. This video condemns fast fashion and calls for critical consumption and durable products, all in a comic key, with an ‘infotainment’ style (i.e. combining information and entertainment) capable of capturing the attention of the share of the audience that would otherwise not reach the end of a three-quarter-hour video.

The vice: reducing sustainability to a joke

The line between self-irony and self-indulgence is blurred, but it is there. So kudos must be given to those at Patagonia for the courage to tell from the inside the company’s processes. Nowadays, no one wants to talk in public about their mistakes; on the contrary, they rush to hide them. Instead, the managers of the Californian brand put their faces to it and explained how achieving a particular objective implies first failing until the most appropriate strategy is identified. What is the problem? The documentary, between a bad word and a cold joke, however, flies fast over the implications of the choices in question, for example, in the dualism between synthetic and natural fabrics.

It indulges, in this sense, in the risks associated with the cotton supply chain, which already posed complexities from the point of view of environmental impact and which, from 2019 onwards, has also posed them in terms of social sustainability with the issue of the exploitation of the Uighur minority in the Chinese region of Xinjiang. However, the same documentary does not spend a word on the oil by-product chain except to suggest that recycling disused fishing nets has done the environment a favour.

The final stage: hypocrisy

But it is not just that. Shittropocene’s indictment of fast fashion is, by the transitive property, a denunciation of Asian manufacturing: cheap, insensitive to workers’ rights and the fate of the environment. Here, it’s a pity that last June, an investigation by Follow The Money revealed that Patagonia relies on the same Sri Lankan suppliers from which Primark shops, i.e. precisely one of those brands that Patagonia blames so much for irresponsible and bulimic practices. Controlling the supply chain is difficult, and no one is safe from mistakes, but on a subject like this, the desire to joke passes.

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