The outdoor gear retailer plans to certify 30 percent of its clothes as fair-trade by the end of 2017.
When horrible tragedies occur in faraway garment factories, like fires and collapses, we hear about them in North America. Everyone gets upset, insists on the importance of providing better working conditions, but then the matter is forgotten until the next tragedy happens. What we don’t think about enough is the daily drudgery of the garment workers, who rise at the crack of dawn, work long hours in dangerous factories without adequate breaks, are exposed to toxic chemicals, rely on distant relatives to raise their children, and earn next to nothing for their labor.
Outdoor clothing retailer Patagonia wants to improve the lives of some of the world’s 40 million garment workers by adopting Fair Trade certification for many of its products. You’ve probably seen the Fair Trade symbol before, most likely on food items such as bananas, chocolate, or coffee; but it can be applied to all kinds of things, including clothes.
The concept behind Fair Trade is simple and effective. Patagonia’s CEO Rose Marcario explains:
“For every Fair Trade Certified™ item we have sewn, Patagonia pays a premium. The money goes into an account the workers control. This is not a top-down program but one run in each case by a democratically elected Fair Trade worker committee that decides how the funds will be used, whether designated for social, economic and environmental community projects like private health care or a child care center, or as a cash bonus that gets workers directly closer to a living wage.”
There is more to Fair Trade than the premium. It also translates into better working conditions, a cleaner, safer factory, more reasonable hours and realistic quotas. It makes garment workers’ lives more dignified. In the words of Fair Trade USA’s CEO Paul Rice:
“More and more Americans are waking up to the reality that there are responsible, sustainable alternatives to sweatshop products.”
As part of its effort to switch to Fair Trade, Patagonia has released a short 13-minute film, made with Little Village Films.
Called “Fair Trade: The First Step,” it depicts the daily routine of a young Sri Lankan mother, who works as a sewing machine operator in a factory that sews Patagonia clothing, and her five-year-old son, who is able to attend the beautiful daycare built with the factory’s Fair Trade premiums. Some of the footage depicts the atrocious conditions, including chemical exposure, experienced by laborers in conventional factories, which really puts the Fair Trade experience into perspective.
So far Patagonia sells 218 Fair Trade-certified clothing items (up from 11 in fall 2014), and it plans to reach 300 items by the end of 2017. The certification exists in factories as far afield as Thailand, India, Colombia, Mexico, Vietnam, and Nicaragua. The clothing is certified by Fair Trade USA, which is a different entity than Fairtrade International, but follows similar guidelines.
This is an admirable step for a company that’s already renowned for its social and environmental progressiveness. Patagonia never fails to impress.