Patagonia Clothing: Made Where? How? Why?

Enviro editor  /  7 Min Read  /  Our Footprint

About once a week, one of our stores or our customer service receives a question about the manufacturing of Patagonia clothing: Where do you make your clothes? Are they made in China? Why? Why don’t make you make them here in the United States? What are the conditions inside your factories?

We thought it would be helpful if we shared a lengthy post, with links to more information.

First, Patagonia doesn’t own farms, mills, or factories. Yet what is done in our name is not invisible to us. We are responsible for all the workers who make our goods and for all that goes into a piece of clothing that bears a Patagonia label.

It took us a long time to ask ourselves what we owe people who work for others in our supply chain. We had high sewing standards, even for casual sportswear, and exacting standards for technical clothes. To meet quality requirements, our production staff had always been drawn to clean, well-lighted factories that employed experienced sewing operators. Although we had always bargained with our factories over price and terms, we never chased lowest-cost labor.

Yet in 1996, when a labor-rights group revealed that Kathie Lee Gifford’s clothing line for Wal-Mart was sewn by 12-year-olds, we wondered whether we were doing anything close. When Kathie Lee Gifford said she had no idea, we believed her. Then, we knew very little about our own supply chain. What measures did our factories take to prevent or deal with a fire? Did they use needle guards to prevent injuries? How many hours a week did the workers sew? We didn’t know. Even in good factories, employees can be forced to work long hours, especially when a company like ours re-orders a hot-selling item and pressures for early delivery.

In 1999, we accepted an invitation to join a task force created by President Clinton (in response to the Gifford scandal) to end child labor and improve garment-factory conditions worldwide. Out of this task force came the Fair Labor Association (FLA), an independent nonprofit monitoring organization dedicated to fair pay and decent working conditions. FLA’s Workplace Code of Conduct prohibits child labor, forced labor, violence, sexual and psychological harassment, and racial discrimination. It guarantees minimum legal or prevailing wage, whichever is higher, overtime wages (with limits on the number overtime hours allowed, a sticky issue), healthy and safe working conditions, and freedom of association to join a union (though independent unions are outlawed in China and Vietnam). Patagonia has its own Code of Conduct that prevents factories from subcontracting work without our permission and requires them to maintain a quality-improvement plan.

Before placing an initial order with a factory, Patagonia has a member of its social/environmental responsibility team visit to verify conditions. This team member can break the deal. Our quality director has similar veto power over the sourcing department’s decision to take on a new factory.

During the early 2000s, we made the poor choice to expand our factory base in search of lower-cost labor. At one point we dealt with more than 100 factories, more than we could handle; we no longer knew many of the people with whom we were dealing or what conditions were like on the factory floor. The result: poor product quality, late delivery, expensive rework, long inspection times at our Reno warehouse, customer dissatisfaction, and loss of profit incurred by honoring customer returns.

We then reduced our factory count by a third and bolstered our relationships with the people with whom we continued to do business. In 2007, we worked with 108 suppliers world-wide, while today this number has been reduced 58% to 45. Although making these reductions has been difficult on a number of levels, doing so allows us to responsibly manage working conditions and product quality far more consistently and effectively. As of this writing, Patagonia manufacturing is done by contracted factories in 16 countries, including the United States.

These factories produce high-quality clothes that require no expensive rework and do not have flaws that would boomerang the clothes back from the customer to the point of purchase. They make clothes that one customer praises to another, which sustains the reputation for quality we prize most highly and would find most expensive to lose. These factories continuously improve quality, including the quality of life on the job for their workers.

We cannot make a claim to be a “Made in America” company; we have always sourced at least half our products outside the U.S. But our percentage of American-made products has decreased over time, as has the U.S. textile industry and the number of domestic high-quality sewing shops. Much of the U.S. apparel manufacturing landscape simply no longer exists. Seattle contractors Cascade, J&E, and Down Products are no longer in business. Pyke Manufacturing of Utah declared chapter 11 in 1994, and Tennessee Apparel, Everite of Pennsylvania, and Linda Apparel of San Francisco have long since shut their doors. It is very difficult for clothing companies to find factories in the U.S. that meet our standards; the textile industry is much smaller; the work has shifted overseas.

The shrinking textile industry in the United States is due in large part to trade agreements, including NAFTA (duty free with Mexico & Canada), CAFTA (duty free with Central American countries), ATPA (duty free with Colombia and other Andean countries ), and IFTA (duty free from Israel). These trade agreements have directly contributed to the dramatic decline in the U.S. based textile and sewn product industries since 1994. Patagonia fought NAFTA, and paid for ads in The New York Times and newspapers around the county in opposition to the NAFTA treaty because we feared it would degrade environmental standards and because it would displace American workers.

A word of background: Patagonia started off quite small as an outgrowth of an even smaller climbing equipment company that at the time had its own machine shop in Ventura but also had ice axes and crampons made under its name in Japan and Europe. The climbing community in those days was small and mostly poor – and decidedly international. People traveled a lot on cheap tickets and slept on each other’s floors. So we were all inclined to consider ourselves 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 the way to do so, would not necessarily result in environmental benefits from reduced transportation. We do think that strong long-term environmental arguments can be made on behalf of localism, of manufacturing closer to the point of purchase. Two mitigating short-term factors: the enormity of change that would be required and the surprisingly low environmental cost of transportation, which accounts for less than 2% of the carbon footprint of our products.

That said, we work with factories in the United States as often as we can: In Los Angeles, we continue to work with a variety of suppliers, while at the same time we have long-term factory relationships in Texas and North Carolina. The factory we work with in Texas hires disabled workers, one of the reasons we work with them. Our new fishing crampons are made in Ventura, California, not far from company headquarters. Having said that we’re not a made in America company, we are not immune to the suffering of people out of work in our country. As we become aware of new suppliers in the U.S., we investigate them.

The next big task will be to secure a living wage for all workers making Patagonia goods. To be able to pay a living wage, factories will have to raise prices to avoid losing revenue, and thus risk worker layoffs. Factories pay the same wages for similar work done for multiple brands, so the brands have to agree to pay more (a delicate step that opens companies to legal liability for price fixing).

Patagonia is currently working within the FLA toward a stepped approach to paying a living wage. But we also act on our own. We have begun to track the minimum and prevailing wage in each country from which we source and to negotiate something closer to a living wage with each factory. We would not have come to the decision to work toward paying a living wage in the supply chain had we not first undertaken The Footprint Chronicles, a self-examination of how our products are made, a transparent method for anyone to track the impact of an article of Patagonia clothing from design through delivery.

As FLA has been an invaluable partner to help us improve social conditions in the supply chain, so bluesign Technologies, an
independent verification firm, has become our most important partner in the work to minimize environmental harm. Bluesign performs regular audits of members who agree to establish management systems to improve environmental performance in five key areas of the production process: resource productivity, consumer safety, water emissions, air emissions, and occupational health and safety. Members regularly report their progress and must meet improvement goals to maintain their status. It has been crucial for us to have systematic help to screen chemicals according to the following categories: blue, safe to use; gray, special handling required; and black, forbidden. Bluesign helps factories eliminate black chemicals and find equivalent alternatives.

The bluesign standard is rigorous, and nine of our suppliers have now signed on. Currently bluesign-approved fabrics comprise 30 percent of the total fabric used in Patagonia products. We have asked all our raw-materials suppliers to adopt the bluesign standard by 2015.

The Footprint Chronicles have helped Patagonia remove barriers to improvements in quality as well as social and environmental conditions. The Chronicles have educated both our suppliers and ourselves, and we have made the choice to do better and not accept the status quo. This is how our work has become more meaningful: we’re not just making clothes, we’re making long-lasting clothes that do less damage.

Links:

Updated 4/20/12: Edited references to CAFTA and Footprint Chronicles, and updated links list.

Updated: 6/11/15: Added Worn Wear and Fair Trade to links list, removed Common Threads Partnership.

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