The Patagonia Catalog’s Unforgivable Whiteness

I’VE BEEN A PATAGONIAC FOR DECADES. I devoured the company’s catalog, and allowed my behavior to be influenced by its images. I’ve written glowingly about the company’s environmental ethos. I have good friends who work for the company, and I am fond of its founder, Mr. Chouinard. I still receive the catalog, which is mailed to me every three months or so.

Several years ago, however, I began to experience a cognitive tic when leafing through the catalog’s pages, as I noted the uniformity of the color and age of those doing the modeling. That is to say, the catalog’s human color palette seemed restricted to young people possessing flawless vanilla skin. Mocha or dark chocolate? Hardly ever. Lined and gray? Rarely. As far as the Patagonia photo editors were concerned, light was clearly right.

I began to wonder aloud about Patagonia’s commitment to social and environmental tenets as basic as say, diversity. Wildlife biologists make clear that monocultures are inherently unsustainable — but it seemed as if the company was cultivating one through its branding. I wondered what was behind Patagonia’s color-blindness and its seeming reluctance to celebrate the black, brown, yellow, red, and the graying outdoor athlete, especially given its participatory norms and its tacit exhortations to break from the mold.

Today I received the company’s Fall 2013 catalog, which celebrates its 40 years in business. “40 Years of Firsts,” the cover reads. The cover features a young beauty belaying her male partner up a vertical wall on Cerro Torre’s ice bespackled West Face. The photo, which is stunningly composed, is meant to illustrate that the company and its patrons have come a long way. Maybe.

Because as far as people of color are concerned in this 40th Birthday tribute piece — they are completely absent. Of the 53 faces that can be made out in the catalog’s many photos (including the studio shots), 52 are very white, and just one is ever so slightly not.

Mr. Chouinard’s catalogs were once beautifully subversive. Join us, he urged. The catalog’s images inspired its readers to think differently, to simplify, to stretch. The company used the catalog to disperse information on environmental campaigns, and to mete out the occasional polemic — which we, as fans of the company, fully expected and welcomed. The company’s not-so-subtle message was to question the hegemonic assumptions upon which a capitalistic society was built.

So why does Patagonia still conduct business as usual when it comes to the skin — and age — of its models? Why hasn’t the company used its exalted place in the outdoor industry to celebrate racial and age diversity? One has to believe that if they did, the outdoor industry would follow suit. Imagine the thousands of outdoor photographers eager for their photos to be featured in the Patagonia Catalog seeking out athletes of color.

“I’ll believe it when I see it,” the old saw goes. Patagonia’s could use its prodigious marketing engine to allow millions of people of color to see it to believe it — “it,” in this case, meaning their rightful place to enter into wild places, partaking in the healthful and active life that Patagonia promulgates.

I hope Mr. Chouinard, who has so successfully reframed a for-profit company as a vessel of social and environmental good, one day decides to tear down the industry’s racial wall. I’d love for Spring 2014 to feature a palette of black and brown and yellow and red. And maybe a little gray, too.