The Patagonia Clothing Company’s latest news break is a reminder of the almighty power of a company’s supply chain when it comes to sustainable, ethical business practices. Few companies are as diligent as Patagonia in researching concepts that will not only reduce its carbon footprint (and thus stay true to its company mandate) but support its customers' ethical expectations.
So the company’s recent announcement that it plans to only source its goose down from 100 percent traceable, ethically produced and harvested down is no surprise. In fact, we would expect no less.
But for those who don’t know the magnitude of that statement, Patagonia’s commitment is considerably harder to accomplish than it sounds. In fact, few, if any products carry goose down that can be said to be 100 percent ethically produced and harvested, and Patagonia’s unusual efforts to correct that explain why.
What is most refreshing about this 41-year-old company is its willingness to avoid the PR double-speak when communicating with its customers. It’s not afraid of shining a light on unintentional weaknesses in its supply chain in order to show how it is correcting the problem.
Patagonia’s methodical efforts to find an ethical source for goose down that could be used in its cold-weather clothing led it to a slaughterhouse in Hungary.
“In 2009 … we decided to avoid risk of inadvertent harm by sourcing our down only from slaughterhouses, where down and feathers are removed after the geese have been killed for food,” the company explains on its blog, The Cleanest Line.
In an effort to ensure that the down wasn’t coming from geese that had been live-plucked (a gruesome practice that is used in some countries to obtain goose down) or killed specifically for their down or feathers, Patagonia required its supplier, Allied Feather and Down, to certify that the down was only coming from geese that had been harvested for food.
Unfortunately however, the company later learned from Four Paws, an animal-rights organization based in Germany, that it was getting its down from a species of goose that was specifically raised for foie gras, a delicacy that is now equated with animal abuse tactics.
According to Patagonia's explanation, it was obtaining its down from birds that had been harvested for food; it didn't realize that it needed also to certify why they were being harvested for food.
“We decided to investigate further,” says Patagonia, which sent a delegation of experts to Hungary to research the problem. Representatives of the company combed the area for farms and slaughterhouses that could meet their ethical specifications. “What we did learn does not sit well with us,” Patagonia admits.
The result of that research, says the company, has been a heightened awareness of the need for ethically harvested down that doesn’t come from geese that have been force-fed for foie gras, and where the birds are treated humanely starting from birth. “Our goal is to bolster our tracing program so that the documents we inspect at each stage can be linked together with more clarity to pass a formal chain-of-custody audit by an independent third party.”
To Patagonia’s credit, it has used the research as a learning experience and has helped strengthen the advocacy for animal rights in this contentious area of commercial food production. It’s also won a supporter: Four Paws, the German animal rights organization that first complained to Patagonia is now working with the company to develop an ethical answer to the problem. The liaison has created a network with other organizations such as the Outdoor Industry Association and Textile Exchange that are committed to this issue.
After almost two years of diligent effort, Patagonia announced earlier this month that it expects to be able to transition to 100 percent traceable, ethically produced and harvested down in the fall of 2014. It is already using certified traceable down in its ultralight down products.
“We intend to add Traceable Down styles each season,” the company announced on its Footprint Chronicles blog, on November 6. It has also attached a list of the principles that goose down suppliers are required to meet in order to do business with Patagonia.
The most rewarding part of this story is its lessons: yes, companies need to do the legwork to check out the supply chain themselves, even if certification is involved.
And just as importantly, a company really can transform the market one step at a time, if it tries.
Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.