OM in the News: All Your Clothes Are Made With Exploited Labor
Yes, this is the somewhat shocking title of The Atlantic’s (June 3, 2015) article featuring Patagonia, which has become a symbol of well-heeled outdoor adventure. But the apparel and sporting company thinks of itself as more than just a retail company. Says Patagonia’s founder: “We aim to make the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, and perhaps most important, inspire solutions to the environmental crisis.” And yet, despite these aspirations, internal audits turned up multiple instances of human trafficking, forced labor, and exploitation in Patagonia’s supply chain.
The audits examined not Patagonia’s first-tier suppliers—the factories that cut, sew, and assemble Patagonia’s products—but the mills that take raw materials and produce the fabrics and other parts that later become jackets and backpacks. About 1/4 of those mills are based in Taiwan, and the majority were found to have instances of trafficking and exploitation. Those mills didn’t hire workers themselves and instead turned to so-called labor brokers. These labor brokers charged migrants exorbitant, often illegally high fees in exchange for jobs.
Though it may seem shocking that a company so publicly committed to fair labor practices could have such violations in its production chain, the news is less surprising when taking into account how the apparel industry operates: with unwieldy, complicated supply chains that reach around the globe. So the findings of Patagonia’s audits show the near impossibility of treating workers well at every step in the production process.
Labor violations are more rampant at the mills and parts manufacturers, which are often subcontracted to provide the materials for the first-tier factories. Traditional factory audits by both brands and NGOs often miss instances of trafficking deeper down the supply chain. Auditors often don’t even have the proper language skills to communicate with the multi-national population of workers that make up the workforce. To complicate the situation further, supply chains are massive and far-flung; relationships among brands, factories, and employees are often informal; and corporate social-responsibility programs tend to be relatively unestablished and toothless.
Classroom discussion questions:
1. What is the solution?
2. If Patagonia is a global leader in ethical manufacturing, what is the status of the rest of the apparel industry?