The official blogs of clothing retail chains tend to be filled with little more than ideas on how to combine various items of this season’s range for a great layered look. Outdoor clothing retailer Patagonia broke the mould when it announced in its company blog in July 2015 that labour brokers in Taiwan were charging migrant workers $7,000 for factory jobs, creating a form of debt akin to modern slavery. Furthermore, it continued, this was happening “in our own supply chain”.
Patagonia has spent a lot of time and money on billing itself as a sustainable, environmentally-friendly brand. In 2011, the company slapped its anti-consumerism “Don’t Buy This Jacket” advertisements all over the U.S.–effectively suggesting people not buy its products. And it regularly touts the work-life balance policies first codified by Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard. A company mantra displayed prominently and reverently adhered to: “Let my people go surfing.” Imagine the shock when in 2011 the company learned that some of its suppliers put workers through deplorable conditions–including making them pay thousands of dollars just to work. To secure a job in Taiwan, migrant workers must pay a “broker” to help them find a position. As Patagonia notes, these fees can be upwards of $7,000, and can take migrant workers more than two years to repay.
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 Yvon Chouinard 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.”
If you are reading this on a tablet, smart phone or computer monitor, then you may be holding a product of forced labor. Verité’s two-year study of labor conditions in electronics manufacturing in Malaysia has found that one in three foreign workers surveyed was in a condition of forced labor. Because many of the most recognizable brands source components of their products from Malaysia, almost any device you purchase may have come in contact with modern-day slavery. Many customers have never heard the stories that most of the migrant workers living in Malaysia can recite by heart. One such story goes like this. In 2011, a Nepali man named Bishal (not his real name) applied for a job with a Malaysian electronics company. He was told he could only be employed if he first paid a $1,266 fee — about double the average annual income in Nepal.