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Patagonia Goes Fair Trade

By Jen Boynton

Patagonia made headlines when they admonished us: "Don't buy that jacket." In fact, they made so many headlines, we bought them anyway. Their commitment to environmental sustainability keeps them at the top of GoodGuide's apparel recommendations. And they've even dipped their toes into social sustainability, with the Footprint Chronicles, a collective documentation of the supply chain and local impacts of all of their products. Today, Patagonia announces that it is taking its commitment to social responsibility much, much further - beyond documentation into third party verification.

In the Fall 2014 season, nine styles will be Fair Trade Certified by Fair Trade USA. This step, a first from a major retailer, represents a huge vote of confidence for the Fair Trade apparel industry in general.

“Offering Fair Trade products is an important new tool for us to help ensure fair wages and workplace safety for the workers in the supply chain who sew Patagonia clothes," says Cara Chacon, Director of Social and Environmental Responsibility for Patagonia in a press release. “We are also empowering the people purchasing our products. This effort is part of a larger strategy to raise awareness with our customers on how they can make a difference in the world with their purchasing decisions.”

Fair Trade USA's certification works a bit differently in the apparel industry than it does for food and agriculture. When it comes to crops like those Fair Trade bananas and chocolate you may see on co-op shelves, the focus is primarily on protecting the agricultural workers, making sure they have living wages and giving them the freedom to improve their own situation. In the case of apparel, those benefits are also extended to the factory workers who cut, make and sew the products.

In order to become Fair Trade certified through Fair Trade USA, apparel manufacturers commit to use Fair Trade cotton, produce garments in a Fair Trade USA certified factory, agree to regular audits, purchase products according to Fair Trade terms (i.e. the piece rate is not the lowest possible), and agree to pay a 1-10% Fair Trade premium to a worker-controlled fund. Workers vote on how to use the funds and use them for things like medical facilities, schools, or simply a bigger paycheck. A few small companies like prAna and Oliberté Footwear have already committed to the Fair Trade process. But Patagonia is the first international brand to come on board. It's no surprise that it has taken so long since the certification process is fairly cumbersome.

Patagonia has decades of experience with certification and supply chain management yet reaching certification took them three years.

During the audit process, "Auditors consult with local unions and civil society organizations dedicated to workers’ rights. The worker representative body is consulted during the audit, participates in the opening and closing meetings along with factory management, and provides comments on findings."  Third-party auditors are utilized to increase the variety and depth of input.

Fair Trade USA utilizes a continuous improvement model, which means it actively works with factories to help them improve and meet the necessary standards. It tells applicants, "You are expected to remediate issues found during audits in a lasting way, to strengthen management systems to prevent those same issues from recurring, and to seek capacity-building support to strengthen performance against Fair Trade standards."

For an organization that is trying to get fair trade certification for the products, the multi-faceted process can be overwhelming (here are the current standards). Fair Trade USA works hard to strike the balance between helping companies along and being strict enough to ensure that real benefits come through for the workers.

Patagonia has always been a trendsetter for sustainability in apparel and we have high hopes that their commitment to Fair Trade will pave the way for other apparel manufacturers to invest in workers.


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Jen Boynton is the former Editor-in-Chief of TriplePundit. She has an MBA in Sustainable Management from the Presidio Graduate School and has helped organizations including SAP, PwC and Fair Trade USA with their sustainability communications messaging. She is based in San Diego, California. When she's not at work, she volunteers as a CASA (court appointed special advocate) for children in the foster care system. She enjoys losing fights with toddlers and eating toast scraps. She lives with her family in sunny San Diego.

Read more stories by Jen Boynton