More than 40 million people work in the global garment industry, yet their stories rarely make the headlines. We’ll tut-tut about the factory fires, the building collapses, the fainting epidemics, and the deaths we hear about, of course. But the punishingly long days, the unrelenting labor, and the countless indignities workers endure? They’re a little easier to ignore. “It completely changes the way you think about clothing when you consider the people in the process,” Helena Barbour, senior director of global sportswear at Patagonia, says in Fair Trade: The First Step, a new 13-minute film by the outdoor-apparel brand. “But because there is no visibility when you buy garments, you are just oblivious to it.”


Produced in collaboration with Little Village Films, the short delves into the human consequences of fashion’s profit-first business model.

“The root of the problem is corporate greed,” says Thuy Nguyen, social and environmental responsibility manager at Patagonia. “It’s companies trying to maximize profit by selling as much for as low as possible to consumers who are willing to buy those products.”

That’s where fair trade can come in.

Fair trade is one of tools that Patagonia is using to raise the standard of living of the people who make their garments.

Although it’s a designation most people associate with coffee, chocolate, or bananas, fair trade is also one of tools that Patagonia is using to raise the standard of living of the people who make their garments.

“More and more Americans are waking up to the reality that there are responsible, sustainable alternatives to sweatshop products,” says Paul Rice, president and CEO of Fair Trade U.S.A., the leading third-party certifier of fair-trade products in the United States, in the video.

Patagonia began its partnership with Fair Trade U.S.A. in 2013, when it became one of the first major outdoor-clothing firms to offer Fair Trade Certified apparel.

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The way it works goes something like this: For every Fair Trade Certified product Patagonia sells, the company pays a premium directly into a fund that workers can spend on what they collectively decide are their community’s greatest needs, whether it’s scholarships, disaster relief, improvements in medical care, or a better system of transportation. Alternatively, they can vote to cash out the premium dollars in the form of bonuses, which can equate to one or more months’ salary.

Since the program kicked off in fall 2014, Patagonia says it has doled out more than $639,000 in premiums.

What started as 11 styles and one factory has now expanded to 218 styles and six factories, including one in Los Angeles, today.

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By fall 2017, the firm says it expects to manufacture 300 styles—or about one-third of its entire inventory—in Fair Trade Certified factories.

“Fair Trade U.S.A.’s approach has proven it contributes to a better standard of living, including pay and employee participation in the workplace and community. It also helps create better working-conditions and safeguards against the use of child labor,” Rose Marcario, Patagonia’s president and CEO, said in a statement. “One last benefit falls not to the workers, the factory or Patagonia as a brand, but to the customer who buys a Fair Trade Certified garment: every purchase is a vote, with the pocketbook, for good values, an all too rare opportunity in our global economy.”

In other words, as Nguyen says in the film, “your purchasing decisions can affect the lives of workers around the world.”

+ Fair Trade: The First Step

+ Patagonia

Originally published on October 10, 2016.