Patagonia is deepening its commitment to paying workers a living wage by expanding its fair trade-certified apparel program and inviting competitors to join the movement.
After launching its fair trade line with yoga clothes and sportswear in fall 2014, the Ventura, Calif.-based company is adding swimwear to the program for spring 2017 and moving fleece into the lineup for fall 2017. It’s also recruiting competitors in the outdoor space, including REI and Mountain Equipment Co-op, to join it in employing fair trade factories.
This strategy to gradually roll out product and open the supply chain is a familiar, effective one that Patagonia first used back in 1996. “It’s the same approach we took to organic cotton,” said Helena Barbour, senior director of global sportswear, who oversees all of Patagonia’s sportswear and fair trade products.
In the two decades following its watershed decision to switch to organically grown cotton and share information with other apparel companies, Patagonia has become a pioneer in adopting a variety of environmentally friendly materials. It hopes to do the same with fair trade. Started as a mail-order climbing gear catalog in 1964, it is a founding member of the non-profit Fair Labor Association. Rather than searching for sewing factories that have already been certified fair trade, it decided to convince the existing manufacturers that have passed the strict process for joining its supply chain to spend the two to six months necessary to convert into fair trade workplaces. On top of costs, Patagonia pays premiums varying between 1 and 10 percent, which are kept in a worker’s account untouched by factory managers. Patagonia has paid $430,000 in premiums to workers, who have used the funds to open a free childcare center and received bonuses.
Moreover, Patagonia welcomed rivals REI and MEC to begin sharing these fair trade factories. “There are several more,” said Cara Chacon, senior director of social and environmental responsibility, who declined to name them since the other outdoor companies haven’t publicized their involvement yet.
Thus far, Patagonia has six certified factories, including Nature USA, which has been making T-shirts for Patagonia in Southern California since 2007, and businesses in India and Sri Lanka. It aims to add manufacturers in Vietnam, Colombia and Mexico to the fair trade program in spring 2017, and 13 are in the pipeline to be certified in time to produce goods for fall 2017.
While its fair trade selection started with 10 yoga styles and six women’s sportswear styles in fall 2014, it broadened the array to 205 styles, or 18 percent of its collection, in fall. The fair trade fashion is expected to grow to over 300 styles in fall 2017. The goal is to have all of its apparel be made by fair trade.
“It’s all or nothing,” Barbour said. As for the date of achieving this objective, she said, “It’s been very hard to put a timeline on this. There are complexities around it.”
What could give Patagonia’s efforts a boost is the expansion of the outdoor sports market. In the 12 months that ended October 2015, sales grew 6.7 percent to $18.8 billion and the average selling price for units rose 4.2 percent. Although she didn’t disclose Patagonia’s sales, Barbour said, “We’ve had positive sales growth.”
Patagonia didn’t increase its prices for the fair trade-certified products, but its merchandise usually carries a higher price tag that factors in costs for preserving the environment and social standards, whether it be sustainable fabrics or fair wages. For instance, among its 50-plus fair trade swim styles for men, women and children, men’s board shorts retail from $59 to $89, the women’s bikini separates, $55 to $75; and women’s one-piece swimsuits, $119 to $129. In comparison, Quiksilver set its opening price point for board shorts at $39.50 and H&M offers bikini tops and bottoms selling from $4.99 to $34.99.
“As a brand we are trying to be transparent of the true cost on the environment and the social side. Of course, that is a different model from chasing cheaper labor,” Barbour said. “The larger issue is that if customers care about the story behind their clothes and the people behind their clothes, there is an added cost to that.”