The Cleanest Line

Your Thoughts on the Footprint Chronicles – Why don’t you make more of your goods in the U.S.A.?

Your Thoughts on the Footprint Chronicles – Why don’t you make more of your goods in the U.S.A.?

May 22, 2009 May 22, 2009

Footprint logo We’ve recently released “What’s Done in Our Name?,” thefirst in a three-part video series called Work in Progress that examines largersocial and environmental issues we grapple with as a company.

”What’s Done in Our Name” directly addresses what we doto monitor the labor practices of the overseas factories that make our goods.

The launch of this video comes at a time when Americansare concerned about the further decline of domestic manufacturing. It should beno surprise that a video focusing on overseas production has sparked a numberof customers to ask why we simply don’t make more of our goods in America.

Below, we highlight one of these e-mails as well as aresponse from a long-time Patagonia employeefamiliar with both our history and the source of our values in several keyareas: product quality, environmentalism and social responsibility.

We welcome your contribution to this exchange – as wellas other thoughts you have about responsible business practices. It's our hopethat as the discussion unfolds it will enrich our continued examination of ourcorporate life – and help us do what we do better and with less harm to theenvironment and the social fabric.


Subject: Comments on the Footprint Chronicles

Patagonia often touts environmental responsibility andclaims to have an environmentally-conscious business model yet virtually everysingle product that Patagonia sells throughits catalog is produced overseas. This is despite the fact that the vastmajority of Patagonia customers live in the United States.

The transportationcost (and fossil fuels consumed) to ship your products from manufacturingplants overseas to the UnitedStates is not insignificant. Patagonia couldalso help to improve the US economy by manufacturing its products domestically.

China,where a good portion of Patagonia clothing isproduced, has an abysmal environmental record. The conditions of the plantswhere your products are made may be good but the energy that is needed bytheses plants is produced by dirty coal that contributes to hazardous airquality conditions that are dangerous to the people of China but alsoto the environment in general.

I also wonder if Patagonia, a company which prides itselfin using recycled material, collects the post-consumer plastics in the US,ships them overseas for processing and the[sic] production into clothing or if theseplastics come from the countries where your products are manufactured.

I know that I am not alone in wondering how sincere yourcompany's environmental stance is when producing clothing. I would guess thatmost of us would be willing to pay a bit more for clothing that is made in the US usingcleaner energy. Patagonia urged US citizens to vote environment when electing public officials. Patagonia's business model should also "voteenvironment" when making decisions regarding its production practices.


Dear Footprint Chronicles Reader,

Our Customer Service department forwarded me your e-mailfor a response. They thought my perspective might be useful to you because I'man editor on the Footprint Chronicles and have been associated with the companyon and off since we started in the early '70s.

First, thanks for your thoughtful and passionate letter.We appreciate the time you took to write us and the spirit in which you write.Having written to companies myself, I know that firing off a letter to a corporationcan feel like throwing a rock into a lake. But only a human being can write a letter- and read one. We take your comments seriously. It distresses us to hear fromcustomers who tell us we fall short of expectations. We take it you'd like usto be a company you'd like to buy from. We'd like to be a company you'd like tobuy from! But if you feel as strongly as you do about "Made in America"we simply may not be a good match for you.

We cannot make any claim at all to be a "Made in America"company; it hasn't been one of our goals. We have always sourced at least halfour products outside the U.S.,and that percentage has shrunk over time, as has the U.S. textile industry and the numberof domestic high-quality sewing shops. We make no claims that we have doneanything even quixotically to help buck this trend. Neither the owners of thecompany nor most (but not all) of its employees have a strong economic-nationalistfeeling.

A word of background: Patagonia started off quite smallas an outgrowth of an even smaller climbing equipment company that at the timehad its own machine shop in Ventura but also had ice axes and crampons made underits name in Japan and Europe. The climbing community in those days was smalland mostly poor – and decidedly international. People traveled a lot on cheaptickets and slept on each other's floors. So we were all inclined to considerourselves citizens of the world as well as Americans.

About half our sales today come from outside the United States,so manufacturing here, if we had both the will and the way to do so, would notnecessarily result in environmental benefits from reduced transportation. We dothink, as you express in your letter, that strong long-term environmentalarguments can be made on behalf of localism, of manufacturing closer to thepoint of purchase. Two mitigating short-term factors: the enormity of changethat would be required and the surprisingly low environmental cost oftransportation, which accounts for less than 2% of the carbon footprint of ourproducts.

Some of the steps we take to reduce environmental harmactually contribute to more geographic fragmentation. There are fewer placesfor us to go for organic cotton and recycled polyester than for their conventionalcounterparts; that sometimes requires more goods moved around at more stages.For now the benefits of using more environmentally conscious fibers likeorganic cotton and recycled polyester outweigh the downside of extra shipping.

Having said that we're not a Made in America company, we want you to know that we take the environmental crisis seriously,as well as our responsibility to reduce the harm done in our ordinary course ofbusiness. This sense of responsibility pervades the company at all levels andin each department. You can find a lot of facts on our Web site. I don't thinkyou'll find any other clothing company our size that comes close in its use oforganic or recycled materials or in the percentage of products that can bereturned to be made into new products. We've given 1% of sales to grassrootsorganization for 20 years. You certainly won't find another warehouse the sizeof ours in Reno that sends less to the landfill. We're proud of all that and much more, butwould never argue that we're an environmentally sustainable company. We aren't.And there aren't any yet.

We might be a greener company if we put quality second.But we instruct our designers and production people to put quality first. Whatdoes that mean? A product has to be durable. And when it does come to the endof its useful life, its different components should wear out at the same time.Quality means that a product should do what we say it does: our shells aresupposed to bead off water so moisture doesn't penetrate. This, for thepresent, involves the use of a durable water repellent with PFOA, a chemicalthat persists in the environment – and that we'd love to get rid of when wefind an alternative.

How do we choose where we make our goods? The answer ispretty complex. Quality is our principle criterion for sourcing; cost becomes asubset. That is, given the choice between two factories that meet our required levelof quality and specific performance characteristics we might opt for the onewith the lower price – if we know we can trust the lower-cost source. This istrue of all sourcing decisions from fiber choice to fabric construction tosewing. Reduced environmental harm is a strong second criterion. If we canreduce environmental harm without sacrificing quality we do so; where reducedharm will increase the price we make judgment calls; the environment oftenwins, even when we think a decision will cost us sales.

We're committed to working in factories that treat wellthe workers who make Patagonia's goods. Thiscommitment, too, can sometimes raise the cost of our products made anywhere in Asia as well as the rest of the world. Some of the countrieswe work in, like China,have poor to mixed records for protecting both the environment and workers'rights. The U.S.'s record isbetter, but not as good – in some cases not nearly as good – as either theE.U.'s or Japan's.We've made the choice not to disengage from countries on the basis of theirpolicies. We believe in choosing factories wisely and in constructiveengagement with others to lobby or work for change.

Thanks much again for writing, for caring enough towrite. We don't expect to win you over but we wanted to clarify to you ourprinciples as well as outline where our principles, applied in a world ofmarket realities, influence our priorities. We hope that this is a useful glimpsefor you into our company and that we earn your respect. We understand if due toyour own priorities you vote elsewhere with your wallet. But we'll miss yourbusiness and your loyalty.

Sincerely yours,

Vincent Stanley

Comments 48

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