Common Ground: Patagonia’s Common Threads Initiative and the FLA

This is a guest post from FLA Participating Company, Patagonia.  It was written by Vincent Stanley, co-author with Yvon Chouinard of The Responsible Company, to be published August 2012.

Bill McKibben made an interesting point a few years back when he compared the yields of factory farming and organic or low-input farming. Factory farming (with subsidies) yields more dollars per acre but an organic field yields more food.

Factory farming requires industrial simplicity and heavy engineering: a few hundred acres of straight-rowed crops of the same variety, requiring vehicles as expensive as Ferraris and copious amounts of oil. A farmer of ten acres really has to know and walk the land, to rely on intimate knowledge of the land to tease out more of its fecundity and value. He or she has to know where one plant thrives in another’s shade, where to intercrop plants with roots of different lengths, note whether the earthworms are thriving. One type of farming exhausts the land, the other takes advantage of – takes its part in – the natural world.

The Common Threads Initiative asks consumers to recycle Patagonia products

We would argue that the second type of farming, low-input, small-scale, more than the factory field, represents good, sound business for now and the future. This is counterintuitive for those of us who grew up to do business in the industrial age, with its emphasis on streamlining and scalability. But the time has come for business people to understand ourselves as deeply a part of nature and to walk our fields – to change our practices so that they become less exhaustive and more intensive and productively alive, to enable our grandchildren to inherit a world we would care to live in.

To walk our fields, we also have to come to know the ground of our suppliers and customers – and we have to work in partnership with everyone who makes up a part of our business community.

Patagonia’s Common Threads Initiative grew out of a simple recycling program: our aim over a five-year period was to make all Patagonia products recyclable at the end of their life, in the spirit of Bill McDonough’s cradle-to-cradle idea: make every used-up product into a new one, preferably of equal value. About halfway in, we began to realize we were working backwards. We shouldn’t have to recycle what should never have been made.

There is a reason Recycle comes last in the Reduce, Repair, Reuse, Recycle mantra. If we want to reduce the social and environmental harm we do, we first need to make – and buy – less stuff that we don’t need, and make what we do need of higher quality so that it needs less frequent replacement. We have to fix what breaks (and what breaks should be fixable), reuse or recirculate what we no longer find useful. Recycling or repurposing the worn-out product into something new comes last. We added a fifth R: Reimagine a world in which we take from nature only what it can replace.

So we’ve now embarked on the Common Threads Initiative as a partnership with our customers, a mutual pledge to pursue the four classic Rs in their proper order, with reimagination as an underpinning of each step.

If we want to come through with our part of the pledge, we have to walk our field. Our field has to become less toxic, more alive, and more productive. And most of that field doesn’t belong to us but to our partners. So if we want to make better-performing products that create less waste, use fewer nonrenewable resources, and generate no poisons, we have to work intimately with the factories and mills in our supply chain – and to do that we need the loyalty and full engagement of the thousands of people employed making Patagonia products who don’t get their paychecks from us.

So our partnership with our factories and mills is as critical to us as that of our customers. But factories and mills are also independent businesses, subject to pressures, sometimes conflicting, from all the brands they serve.

That’s why two other partners – independent but interlinked with both brands and suppliers – have become so critical to us. Bluesign Technologies screens, benchmarks, and helps our suppliers improve their environmental practices. The FLA helps us ensure fair, safe treatment of the workers who make our products. We long ago learned that you can’t make a good product in a bad factory. There is no such thing as a good factory that mistreats its workers. We’re a part of nature too; and we work most intensively and productively – and intelligently – when we  feel important, useful, and needed, whatever our social class or level of education.  We fully applaud and subscribe the new, tighter FLA standards and have altered our own Code of Conduct to meet them.

Our partnership with FLA, and with its work, will be significant to our ability to survive and thrive as a business in this time of environmental crisis and social change. Read more on The Guardian‘s Sustainable Business blog.

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One Comment on “Common Ground: Patagonia’s Common Threads Initiative and the FLA”

  1. Mike Fink says:

    The BlueSign Standard states:

    Section 4.7: Converter

    “A converter purchases fabrics from one or more suppliers. The supplier(s) may be subcontracted and working on a commission basis or working on their own responsibility. The fabrics are put on the market from the converter with trade name(s) specified by the converter. It is not obligatory that the buyer has information on the original suppliers. The converter itself has not installed any chemical or physical finishing steps. The original textile fabric is sold without any change with exception of makeup/packaging.”

    This is the problem with global supply chains and NGO governance. This section makes section 6.2.3.1.3 of the BlueSign Standard totally superfluous, because occupational health at the conversion site is taken into consideration whereas the supplier site is actively ignored. I know the FLA is supposed to step in here and ensure that things are hunky dory but your track record is fairly awful and without the power of the state you are really only entitled to make suggestions. It is good you all are using ILO standards, but until you can effectively woo UNITE-HERE and other such organizations your legitimacy remains in question. Why would such organizations refuse to join back up with the FLA if there was real structural change with the 2011 Compliance Benchmarks? For the moment, you are the megaphone for corporations and career politicians, not the people struggling under the conditions of global capitalist competition.


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