Addressing Labor Abuses in Ethical Apparel

factoryKerstin Lindgren

Recently the Atlantic published an article detailing problems of human trafficking and other labor abuses in Patagonia’s supply chain and the efforts of Patagonia to address them.

The source of information about these problems is Patagonia’s own internal audit reports and although the reports are not public, discussion of main findings by the company represents more transparency than normally comes from large apparel companies.

Most prominent in the news are stories of working conditions in cut and sew factories, or first-tier suppliers. Most of the rest of the supply chain is invisible to consumers. According to the article:

“The status quo throughout the industry, both in internal audits and for many groups that monitor labor conditions for these brands, largely requires that companies only look at and remedy labor trafficking issues at their first-tier suppliers…. But that’s not where the bulk of problems exist. Labor violations are more rampant at the mills and parts manufacturers, which are often subcontracted to provide the materials for the first-tier factories.”

Patagonia is addressing its own supply chain by increased auditing throughout the supply chain and by asking more of its suppliers to address the worst abuses, for example employment standards addressing human trafficking.

Left out of this article, however, is the troubling relationship of Patagonia with Fair Trade USA (FTUSA). FTUSA in recent years has developed an apparel program that looks only at the final cut and sew factories before rewarding a “fair trade” label to brands. When Fair World Project asked them why they would leave out the rest of the supply chain, they responded that they focused on cut and sew because that is where the most problems were. Mounting evidence suggests this is not true and looking at only one aspect of the supply chain short-changes both workers and consumers, as we have detailed previously.

Patagonia is one of the most prominent adopters of the FTUSA “fair trade” program, which is particularly troubling given their own acknowledgement that there are problems deep within the supply chain, places FTUSA does not want to look. In Patagonia’s long and admirable journey, FTUSA is more likely to stand in the way than bring about fairness in the supply chain.

4 thoughts on “Addressing Labor Abuses in Ethical Apparel

  1. Thank you for this article. It is unfortunate that FTUSA represents fair trade in many peoples minds. I can only imagine this is disasterous for the slaves in the cocoa industry and many others too. Sad after all the work by so many to connect people to products they are happy to pay for, sorry for slaves!

  2. In Patagonia’s Defense . In supply chains people lie all the time, hiding the Truth. They may be asking the right questions . They are doing a much better job than the rest of the industry. Still every company should know the product details. Sometimes you have to be a private eye to get to the truth .

  3. It makes one’s shopping decision tough when you want to support the company that is taking steps but then wonder if they truly are or not. Best option for me is to continue to buy local as much as possible.

  4. Anyone have recommendations for alternative apparel companies that can ensure fair labor standards along their entire supply chain? Patagonia seems to be the best option among clothing manufacturers that are widely available. Plus their clothes are durable and look good. Hopefully they can leverage their weight to make positive changes at all levels of their supply chain.

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