Fair Trade Certified: Patagonia’s Commitment to Economic Empowerment

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The term Fair Trade Certified™ has always been a bit of a mystery to the general public. Casually included alongside altruistic phrases like “post-consumer recycled” or “locally sourced,” the everyday consumer may not understand exactly what it means for a product to be officially approved as Fair Trade Certified™. So let’s break it down! Fair Trade Certified™ is a reward system helping brands give back to their workforce by paying a premium to manufacture goods at certified factories. These premiums are deposited into a Community Development Fund, which goes directly back to the community where the product was made. From there, each community democratically decides how to spend the funds to improve their lives by meeting their unique social, economic and environmental needs.

This otherwise simple concept has one important detail that adds a deeper layer of value to the system—not just any factory can be Fair Trade Certified™. Manufacturers must also adhere to uncompromising standards for the health and safety of their factory employees, guarantee they will use no child or forced labor, and commit to environmentally respectful practices. They’re also required to provide reasonable maternity and paid leave for employees, and pursue broader programs to encourage positive and impactful empowerment in the community.

Patagonia became a founding member of the Fair Labor Association in 2001 and subsequently implemented and expanded one of the world’s most successful Fair Trade Certified™ programs. Starting with just one factory producing 10 Fair Trade clothing styles in 2014, Patagonia now offers 480 styles created by 14 different factories, an assortment of products that includes all of the company’s board shorts and bikinis, as well as 94 of their popular fleece items. Nearly 16,000 workers have directly benefited from premiums the brand has paid forward through their Fair Trade Certified™ program. While most Fair Trade apparel factories are in Asia, Patagonia also operates certified factories in Colombia, Nicaragua, Thailand and Vietnam, and was the first company to expand the program to Mexico and the United States.

Helena Barbour, Patagonia’s Vice President of Global Sportswear, is committed to furthering these initiatives by continuously expanding their offering of Fair Trade products. As she explains, “It’s a personal passion of mine. Most people recognize their clothing is made from certain materials, but it’s important to realize they’re also made by hands.” For Helena, this means “the people making our clothing deserve to be recognized. Fair Trade Certification is more than just a premium paid to these factories, it’s something that benefits the lives of these workers. It’s very important to put a human connection into supply chains and Fair Trade is a crucial component of a broader conversation about consumer habits.”

The unique nature of Fair Trade is most apparent when looking at the many different ways communities allocate their premiums. “Workers have chosen to use these funds for anything from cash bonuses to funding on-site child care programs,” notes Helena. At the Hirdaramani factory in Sri Lanka, workers used their Community Development Fund to open a daycare center providing factory workers with free child care. Nature USA in Los Angeles voted to take their share of the money, which equaled up to six days salary, as cash bonuses they put towards healthcare or college tuition for their children. We know women play a key role in driving global economies in emerging countries, but this contribution is rarely reflected by their salaries or rank of the positions they hold. Fair Trade helps level the playing field for women in these situations. According to Helena, “[Women] are the majority of the workforce in garment factories. Fair Trade gives this often underrepresented group the ability to choose how to improve the working and living standards they have.”

As we become more educated on the lifecycle of the garments we wear and what they’re made from, we must also consider the lifecycle of the people who actually produce these products. Fair Trade Certification guarantees we’re holding brands accountable, not just for choosing sustainable materials or environmentally conscious manufacturing methods, but for supporting the equality, health and independence every community deserves.

Images courtesy of Patagonia.

xx Jeanine

This article was originally published in RANGE Magazine Issue Eight.