Supply chain breaks down at Patagonia

What happened when Patagonia discovered some suppliers were mistreating animals, while others were abusing workers.

Ever since the outdoor gear company was founded in 1973, Ventura-based Patagonia has worked to build the best quality products while vowing to maintain strict environmental and social standards.

But, that tightrope has been hard for the company to walk lately.

After eight years of growth that has seen the company’s profits triple, Patagonia has found out some of its suppliers have harmed animals and mistreated employees.

Reporter Erica Phillips has been writing about the supply chain breakdown for the Wall Street Journal, and spoke with KCRW’s Larry Perel.

KCRW: Catch us up to speed. What has Patagonia discovered about certain practices the company didn’t know were going on?

Phillips: Three situations happened. First, they found out that the geese at their down farms were being force-fed for foie gras, which is considered an unethical practice. They cut ties with that supplier and had to find a new supply chain for their down.

They also ran into labor issues in their Taiwanese factories. Labor brokers were charging workers thousands of dollars for jobs, which is considered indentured servitude. Patagonia worked with that supplier to remedy the problem.

Thirdly, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) discovered sheep were being mutilated and mistreated on farms that supplied wool for Patagonia. The company called this supplier, verified this footage was actually from those farms, and then decided to cut ties with the supplier.

You wrote that each of these revelations – the force feeding of geese, human rights violations in Taiwan, sheep mistreatment – caught the company off guard. Why is that?

That’s what’s so interesting to me. How is it possible that a company with all the resources and best efforts still ends up in situations where they don’t know what’s happening? Once you start digging into this, it’s surprising how little most companies know about where their materials and goods come from.

A big issue seems to be the fact that lots of Patagonia gear is made overseas. Has the company considered moving all the operations to the U.S. to help better keep an eye on things?

In the case of wool, the new supplier is actually based in the U.S. – one in Oregon called the Imperial Stock Ranch and one in Utah called Red Pine Land and Livestock Company. That has allowed, at least for the time being, Patagonia to have a closer eye on everything that’s happening. But, the company is also looking at farms in New Zealand. They said to me that sourcing overseas is not a no-no for them. It just takes a little extra scrutiny, trips overseas and money spent.