The Dirty Secret Hiding in Our Outerwear

Patagonia pulled on a thread and found migrant workers suffering under servitude in its supply chain. Will its disclosures prompt other brands to air their dirty laundry (or even look for it) as well?

Photo by Markus Grossalber/Flickr

Outside Online
July 22, 2015

When’s the last time you read about sweatshops in the news? Back in the late ’90s, when U.S. brands Gap and Nike were facing major public relations battles over child labor? Or perhaps you’ll recall that in 2013, more than 1,000 workers perished when Rana Plaza, a deteriorating Bangladeshi garment factory, collapsed. Either way, you probably do not associate your gear closet with unethical labor practices. Turns out, you probably should.

In early June, Patagonia revealed on its company blog, the Cleanest Line, that three years ago it discovered evidence of “egregious employment practices,” including debt bondage, among seven of its suppliers. It worked to remediate the problem, only to discover that it was widespread, so it created a special policy across all its Taiwanese suppliers to root out the practice.

Debt bondage “creates a form of indentured servitude that could also qualify, less politely, as modern-day slavery. And it’s been happening in our own supply chain,” the company wrote.

Though it’s a private company, Patagonia is known for being radically transparent about its supply chain’s environmental and social impacts and for working hard to be a good corporate citizen. So if Patagonia had this kind of forced labor in its supply chain, does that mean it’s likely other outdoor brands do as well?

Yes, it does, say labor rights experts, including Rich Appelbaum, who chairs Global and International Studies and Sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. None of the experts we spoke to for this story were surprised by Patagonia’s finding.