Disrupting the Living Wage for Factory Workers

Patagonia is one of the first major outdoor-clothing companies to offer Fair Trade Certified apparel starting in Fall, 2014

In the fall of 2014 Patagonia will begin selling Fair Trade Certified apparel. We’re starting small, with ten women’s sportswear styles sewn in a factory in India owned by Pratibha, but this is a big move for our company and for me personally. Fair Trade USA ensures that workers are fairly paid, work in safe conditions, and protect the environment. Fair Trade Certification of these ten styles is an important step in the long-term effort to gain a living wage for the people who make Patagonia’s products.

In my fifteen years as an auditor, trainer, and director of social and environmental responsibility programs (for the past four at Patagonia), my respect and admiration has grown stronger and deeper for the women sewing our clothes. Many are the first generation in their family to leave the farm and a subsistence life to enter the workforce. Being a breadwinner, or sharing in the breadwinning, gives these women more confidence, independence, and social value within their families and communities.

I often have a chance to meet and interview them personally and I've talked to hundreds (maybe thousands) of workers over the years. Most of these are brief meetings at the factories, but in this time I’ve come to know these women for their grace, humor, and tenacity as well as their skill with their hands and their incredible capacity for hard work. Many of these women have questions and worries about their local labor laws and some are fearful to report anything to the auditors (in those cases we take extra measures so that factory management doesn’t know how we found out about a particular concern). My most memorable moments are when I return to a factory and find out that they are now receiving their correct overtime pay and can afford school books for their children; or their supervisor now speaks to them with respect and they are much happier; or the worker council has helped solve management-worker communications problems in the factory.

But they’re still being paid some of the world’s lowest industrial wages. These women have dreams: to make life better and healthier for their families. They deserve a living wage—a figure often disputed—but one generally defined as enough money for workers and their dependents to meet basic needs.

This initiative with Fair Trade USA and Pratibha is an important step for us. It works this way: for every Fair Trade Certified item Patagonia sells, we will pay an extra lump sum into a bank account controlled by the workers who will then vote amongst themselves on how to use the money, whether to take it as a bonus, help build a school, create a scholarship fund, or start a small business on the side. All workers benefit from the funds, whether they work on Patagonia orders or not. The clothes will be certified by Fair Trade USA for the sewing factory only, not the cotton growing or fabric production of the clothes produced. We are working diligently to add the certified materials (mills and organic cotton farms) as well as more styles and factories in future seasons.

This initiative is one of several we’re taking in pursuit of our long-term goal to secure a living wage for all people who make Patagonia products. As a first step, earlier this year Patagonia strengthened its Code of Conduct—which outlines responsible practices for our supply chain—to include a living wage requirement. We have also implemented policies to consider the living wage rate in our costing formulas in support of the Fair Labor Association’s membership requirements for responsible purchasing practices.

All these efforts begin to turn our commitment to paying living wages into tangible action and to enable workers to choose how they want to improve their lives. We have a long way to go and much to learn. Patagonia is proud to partner with Fair Trade and Pratibha in a program we hope we can build on and scale. I am especially proud on behalf of all the workers I have had the good fortune to come to know, respect and admire.

To make informed purchasing decisions, learn more about which products are fair trade here.

Image via Fair Trade USA

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