Patagonia Converts to Fair Trade

(3BL Media and Just Means) - October marks pumpkin lattes, apple picking and most importantly, fair trade month. And this year, there’s big news and major cause for celebration: Patagonia’s Fair Trade line is officially available.

In partnership with Fair Trade USA, one of two fair trade certifiers in the United States, Patagonia is converting their legacy collection - as in every style they own. Their current Fair Trade offering includes 10 pieces of women’s athletic and fall apparel, but by fall of next year it will include 165 styles. Patagonia’s pursuit of Fair Trade is part of a larger strategy in addressing fair wages in their supply chain. Thuy Nguyen, Patagonia’s Social and Environmental Responsibility Manager, explains:

“We’ve been talking with Fair Trade USA for two years about the conversion. There’s been so much support and enthusiasm internally. We want to improve the living wage of workers in the apparel industry. We all know it’s the right thing to do and we are setting our sights to take it even further. By next fall, we will have six additional, Fair Trade certified factories around the globe. And this includes the first, Fair Trade certified factory in the United States.”

Currently, Patagonia has certified Pratibha, an Indian-based factory, a factory they’ve had a relationship with for a long time. Nguyen visited Pratibha in May and saw the workers empowered to express their needs to upper management. She was impressed by the way upper management took advantage of a meeting to discuss fair trade premiums as a way to understand their workforce.

“The conversation about the Fair Trade premium provided an opportunity for workers and management to have an open conversation. It wasn’t meant to be a grievance process, but when workers talked about how to spend the money, management became aware of other needs. For example, the women talked about how they wanted uniforms because their saris would get very dirty at work and it was hard to have time to wash them. Workers also asked for a cover for the bike rack so the bikes wouldn’t rust when it rained outside. It was a non-threatening conversation. Workers, including women were speaking up and management was listening,” said Nguyen.

As part of a longer-term strategy, Patagonia plans to pursue Fair Trade certification at both the factory and farm level. Unlike other certifiers, Fair Trade USA does not require companies to certify their entire supply chain, from field to factory. For Patagonia, this was very attractive for them and part of the reason they chose to partner with them.

“Fair Trade USA decoupled the certification process. They understand the complications to map out the supply chain from farm to factory. For us to certify every layer of the supply chain, it would take years to get the money into the hands of the workers. And this is the main objective,” explained Nguyen.

Fair Trade USA offers certification for farms and for factories, but not yet for mills. Interestingly, the workers at Pratibha have decided to use part of their Fair Trade premium to provide higher wages for their colleagues who work at the mill. Yet another reason I love the fair trade model: giving begets giving begets giving.

Patagonia is not currently passing any of the costs of Fair Trade to the customer. And they don’t exactly know how the conversion will impact ROI or their bottom line. But Fair Trade reflects their mission, their values and who they are and to them—that’s all that matters.

“Historically, when we’ve done the right thing, it’s been successful. We came together on this and said, ‘let’s benefit the workers and let’s see. We don’t know what the ROI will be, but we do know it’s important for us to inform customers that their purchase will impact workers in such a positive way,” said Nguyen.

On a systemic level, Patagonia is in conversation with other major players in the apparel industry like Nike and H&M about industry standards and wages for workers. Cara Chacon, Director of Social and Environmental Responsibility for Patagonia, is on the board of the Fair Labor Association and is trying to push this conversation forward.

“We are talking with other brands about how to move this needle forward together as industry.  We are a very small player in this industry. We only have so much control, so much influence. And the issues are very complex. But our long term strategy is to collaborate as an industry to change the way we source and the way we operate,” says Nguyen.

Patagonia was the poster-child for my MBA in Managing for Sustainability program for good reason. Every action they take is values and mission driven, even if there’s no guarantee that the ROI on the bottom line will benefit. Nguyen thinks so, too.

“Patagonia walks the talk. I’ve never seen another company operate like this. We look at our values and say this is our destination. This is what we want to do. This is where we want to be and we work towards it. Everything we do is value-driven. With every decision, we go back to our mission,” says Nguyen.

Patagonia gives us a reason to believe that business is good, a reason to celebrate extraordinary impact. I have hope that their mission-led, business acumen will continue to lead other corporations to redefine the way they measure success. For the sake of social impact. For the sake of factory workers. For the sake of others.

Check out Patagonia’s Fair Trade line. Read the press release with Fair Trade USA.