Following trends in chocolate and coffee production, Patagonia has become the first major national apparel retailer to sell "Fair Trade certified" clothing, but will customers spend more for "fair" workers' wages and safer working conditions?
Privately-held Patagonia announced that its inaugural products will be certified by Fair Trade USA, a nonprofit that calls itself the "leading" third-party certifier of Fair Trade products in North America. The company's certified clothing will start with nine yoga styles available in fall 2014.
For Patagonia, based in Ventura, Calif., Fair-Trade certified clothing should be an easy sell for a company that prides itself as a counter-company doing social and environmental good, according to Jennifer Black, retail expert and president of Jennifer Black and Associates.
"It's definitely a genuine effort, because they already have the image -- what I call the pure image -- of who they are and who their target market is," Black said. "They're probably one of the few companies I would say that about."
In Nov. 2011, the company attracted considerable attention when it published a Black Friday advertisement that stated, "Don't Buy This Jacket." The ad, the theme of which is reiterated in company billboards and customer emails, suggested customers not buy Patagonia clothing unless they really needed them due to the resources it takes to make one product.
The much smaller PrAna, launched in 1992 in Carlsbad, Calif., is another company that offers some Fair Trade certified clothing, but Patagonia has the brand strength to attract the attention of enough customers, especially younger "millennials."
Black said millennials, or Generation Y, which typically describes people born in the early 1980s to early 2000, tend to value experiences and giving back in their purchases. She shares one anecdote in which one male millennial said he and his friends choose to purchase more-expensive jeans made by Patagonia that will last for several years.
"When I heard that kid say that, a lot of his friends would rather have a piece of that than multiple pieces of something else, all their experiences are more important and it's not about lots of stuff. I think it's the wave of the future," she said.
Dan Schawbel, author and founder of Millennial Branding, said millennials tend to be conservative when it comes to spending and saving money, "so products that give them a bang for their buck are more appealing to them."
Though the prices for Patagonia's Fair Trade certified clothing have not been released, existing yoga products are on the pricier side, on par with premium yoga apparel clothier Lululemon. On Patagonia's website, W's Innerspace yoga tank is priced at $55 while W's Serenity Tights are $79. The new Fair Trade styles will include leggings, an "Ahnya" dress and a pull-over.
In addition to having products made in factories monitored and certified by Fair Trade USA using social and environmental standards, Patagonia says workers will "have a voice and earn a fair wage."
Patagonia says that for every Fair Trade certified product it sells, the company will pay a premium directly into a workers' fund. The workers will decide collectively how to spend this fund, whether scholarships and disaster relief funds, or medical care and transportation. Workers can also vote to receive the Fair Trade premium dollars as a cash bonus, which can be equivalent to an entire month's salary or more, Patagonia says.
Jill Dumain, Patagonia's director of environmental strategy, admitted that finding factories willing and able to meet Fair Trade USA's standards was challenging. The company made an agreement with a factory in India, but Dumain said there are challenges in not just fair but equal conditions for workers, perhaps in the same factory who are not working on fair trade products.
"We are also empowering the people purchasing our products," said, Cara Chacon, director of Social and Environmental Responsibility for Patagonia, in a statement. "This effort is part of a larger strategy to raise awareness with our customers on how they can make a difference in the world with their purchasing decisions."