Patagonia: A Cautionary Tale

A recent article in the Atlantic Monthly was a sobering reminder of the toll outsourcing continues to take.

In the more than 40 years since its founding as a clothing company, Patagonia has become a symbol of well-heeled outdoor adventure. But the apparel and sporting company, which sells everything from fleece jackets to smoked salmon, thinks of itself as more than just a retail company. …And yet, despite these aspirations, four years ago internal audits turned up multiple instances of human trafficking, forced labor, and exploitation in Patagonia‚Äôs (overseas) supply chain…

What, in essence, Patagonia has discovered is that it’s impossible to make things in China, Bangladesh, Vietnam, etc. without relying upon exploited labor. You may not intend to do it. But supply chains get so complicated when you outsource that such abuses are an inevitability.

If a company as seemingly committed to good corporate citizenship as Patagonia can’t avoid this in its overseas supply chains, then I seriously doubt anyone can. The only solution is reshoring, bringing production back to the United States with its labor, occupational safety and environmental protections.

At the prices Patagonia charges, it could easily produce its wares in the United States, paying living wages to American workers, and still make a tidy profit. The only rationale for outsourcing as prodigiously as Patagonia has is ugly, vile, naked greed.

I’ve heard before that Patagonia claims the sewing expertise it needs has migrated overseas. This is a bold-faced lie. Companies like Western Mountaineering, Feathered Friends, ZPacks , Zimmerbuilt and Melanzana continue to produce outdoor products to a very high standard–all with American hands and American know-how. And all at a price point that is very competitive with what Patagonia charges.

But if, in fact, what Patagonia claims is true, then it bears a significant responsibility for that erosion of expertise. The expertise now exists overseas because companies like Patagonia shuttered their American factories. It’s that old canard: You are either part of the problem or you are part of the solution.


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