Patagonia tried to stop human trafficking in its supply chain, but, as recently as 2011, internal audits found continuing abuses. Is the problem too massive for companies to solve?
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. Patagonia is an accredited and founding member of the Fair Labor Association; its website is as much an educational tool about environmental and social responsibility—filled with information on issues such as preservation of land in Chile, labeling GMO products, and responsible sourcing—as it is an online store. In a note launching the company’s food division, Patagonia Provisions, company founder YvonChouinard restated the brand’s central ethos: “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, four years ago internal audits turned up multiple instances of human trafficking, forced labor, and exploitation in Patagonia’s supply chain, according to Cara Chacon, the company’s director of social and environmental responsibility, and Thuy Nguyen, the manager of supply chain social responsibility and special programs.
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, backpacks, and so on for the world’s adventuring class. About one-quarter of those mills are based in Taiwan, and the majority were found to have instances of trafficking and exploitation.
The problems stemmed from how those mills found the people to work their factory lines. They 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. There were other red flags, too. Suppliers would open bank accounts into which the workersdeposited their paychecks, so that fees for labor brokers could be automatically deducted. Workers’ movements were also restricted through the confiscation of passports. The recruitment and hiring process used by many labor brokers can create a cycle of fear and debt that leaves workers neither able to leave their jobs nor to make a decent living.