In early November, I was surveying the aftermath of the Mesa Fire in west-central Idaho with several carloads of people from all walks of Western life. There were representatives from the timber industry, local elected officials, a team of “-ologists” from the Forest Service and several faces from the conservation community. I was there as a radio reporter. Apart from my regular uniform of headphones and a mic, I was dressed appropriately for a 40-degree day in the field, in Muck boots, jeans, a scarf and a 20-year-old Patagonia fleece.
It’s that last item that’s been on my mind ever since.
This fall, Patagonia stepped into partisan politics by endorsing two Democratic candidates.
At one point during the tour, we were standing in a circle, looking up at needle freeze. This is what happens when a fire burns hot enough to fix the needles on an evergreen tree in a windswept position, like something you’d see in a Dr. Seuss story. Fire managers use it as a forensic tool to determine which way a fire moved across the landscape.
When everyone was looking up at the fire’s aftermath, I glanced at the people gathered around me. I noticed that a gentleman from an Idaho conservation group and I were the only two people wearing something overtly labeled Patagonia, and I inwardly cringed.
It’s a cardinal sin for reporters to display anything that might lead sources to believe we are anything but neutral parties. In my entire adult life as a journalist, I’ve never contributed to a political group, nor have I attended any kind of cause-driven event, except in my professional capacity. People routinely ask me how I “really” feel about certain issues, and I usually tell them the truth – that sometimes I go into a story leaning one way or the other, but the more I learn about both sides, the more I find myself in the middle. My job is to find the facts, make sense of them, and produce a fair story that gives readers or listeners enough information to make up their own minds.
Before the 2018 midterm elections, I never thought twice about which warm clothes I wore in the field. I couldn’t tell you the brand of the borrowed down jacket I wore during my third trimester on a reporting trip to sagebrush country last winter, nor which of my several sets of underlayers I stripped down to while hauling rocks alongside small-claims miners in south-central Idaho last fall. I choose my attire based on my desired level of dryness, warmth and comfort, and some low bar of style.
But after Patagonia’s endorsement of two Democratic candidates this fall, I started to wonder if I’d unwittingly committed a fashion faux pas that day in the forest.
Many in the conservative community seem to think so. An ad I’d recently seen from a stockman’s advocacy group played in my mind. The Public Lands Council offers a “Patagonia shame” patch that people can iron onto their clothing to cover up the Patagonia logo. The group pegs it as a cure-all for people who want to wear their warm garments without the disgrace of supporting a company with a liberal political agenda.
Patagonia’s conservation ethos – stereotyped as a liberal cause in recent years, though people on both sides of the aisle share these values – is hardly new news. Patagonia is one of several outdoor apparel companies that have denounced national monument reductions, a fight that reached a boiling point last year when the Outdoor Retailer trade show decided to leave Utah over the state’s campaign to shrink Bears Ears National Monument.
What is new is the company’s endorsement of two Democratic candidates in hotly contested U.S. Senate races – Jon Tester of Montana and Jacky Rosen of Nevada. It was Patagonia’s first foray into championing specific candidates in high-stakes elections, and both the company’s picks won. “Hundreds of corporations back political candidates,” the company said in a press release. “The difference with our activism is that we put our logo on it.”
So … does that make it a political statement to wear something bearing that brand name?
When I examine the problem up close, new truths bubble to the surface. I realize I would never wear an NRA T-shirt, just like I would never wear a Greenpeace one. I’m deliberate in not taking a side, either passively or actively. Those ethics matter to me. But I’m less judicious about noticing where my consumerism intersects with political activism, and maybe that needs to change.
That day in the forest, if someone had pointed to my fleece and asked me if I believed in Patagonia’s political agenda, I would’ve shrugged and said I believe in wearing warm clothes on a cold day. But I’m open minded to the possibility that wearing a Patagonia sweater might some day be seen as a statement about one’s self and one’s political values. If that day comes, I suppose I’ll have to retire my favorite fleece. Or, at the very least, find my own cool patch to sew over the logo.
Monica Gokey is a print and radio journalist in Idaho’s west-central mountains. This article first appeared in High Country News (hcb.org) on Nov. 21.