Interview with Nick Allen (Patagonia)

Nick Allen Sustainable Brands Barcelona

Could you describe your duties as Head of traceability in Patagonia? What aspects do you pay more attention to on a daily basis?

As the Traceability Manager at Patagonia, my job entails working with internal and external stakeholders to ensure that Patagonia meets the strong sustainability or animal welfare standards we set for materials we use in our products. I work with colleagues in the sourcing and production departments to ensure that existing and potential suppliers are able to provide us with proof of meeting our standards, but I also spend a lot of time communicating what our standards are, and how suppliers can get certified to existing certifications.

Education is key, as is really partnering with our suppliers to reach our objectives, not merely dictating terms of business. Materials that are part of my scope of work include goose and duck down, organic cotton, sustainable wool, and recycled polyester, among others.

What elements make it necessary to travel to the points of origin of each raw material? Do you assess the carbon footprint when travelling to these places?

Visiting suppliers is very important in order to get a first hand impression of the conditions on the ground at the point of extraction. We also rely on third party auditors as well as established and vetted certifications systems. We’ve found that a combination of internal and third party auditing produces the best results, combined with high-quality relationships with our suppliers, where a constant and productive dialogue is really our best asset in achieving the best for our workers, for the environment and for animal welfare. Carbon footprint assessment is outside of my scope, but we have a product and brand responsibility teams within Patagonia that are in charge of evaluating our environmental impacts.

What tools do you toy use to verify the origin of the products that you utilize and the raw materials, is the treatment of animals involved, etc.?

At Patagonia we are lucky because we actually know who most of our raw materials suppliers are. Whereas a lot of apparel manufacturers only have contact with the Tier 1 of the supply chain (cut and sew factories), we actually pre-select or nominate our raw materials suppliers not only to ensure the highest level of quality and performance, but also best practices in labor and environmental conditions as well as animal welfare.

Having direct contact with our material suppliers and full transparency as to all the entities involved in the various processes, allows the work of traceability to be more about improving conditions in Tier 2 (and beyond) of our supply chain. We have been able to achieve this level of transparency through our four-fold supplier approval process, which evaluates full transparency from every supplier as well as compliance with requirements for quality, social, environmental and animal welfare responsibility

What do you think is the worst current practice that you found between suppliers in the sector to which Patagonia belongs? ¿Is there a generalised intention to improve on that or is business more concerned with cutting prices?

That depends on what part of sustainability you are discussing: labor conditions, environment impact, or animal welfare. There are high risk practices in each category that we want to eliminate in the supply chain. I’ve been conducting trainings, audits and remediation/capacity building for about 10 years and have seen a lack of effectively implemented management systems to handle labor and traceability policies. Many times businesses will have substantial policies and procedures, but these are not communicated to the line managers, or at times are implicitly not followed. In Spanish the saying is “del dicho al hecho hay un gran trecho” or in English “saying it and doing it are two different things”. Effective verification relies on triangulation, not relying on formal procedures.

In terms of whether the industry is looking to improve supply chain conditions or impacts versus cutting costs, I think there are arguments to be made for both positions. However, there have been some real long-term results of labor and environmental standards in the international supply chain, particularly in the area of outdoor apparel. There is clearly a lot of room for improvement, but I think it is important to compare what things were like 20 years ago to what they are like now. I’m proud to work for Patagonia, which is showing a lot of leadership in all of these areas.

How has the economic downturn affected the social and environmentally responsible products?

From my past job as a consultant, I was able to see that there was a clear effect of the recession on priorities in some companies, and unfortunately in many cases, CSR suffered as a result. However, I believe that cutting a CSR budget is short sighted. The risks that exist, particularly in the supply chain, do not go away because you stop assessing them, and consumers who spend money according to their values are not likely to forgive a company for their involvement in environmental disasters or factory worker’s deaths, simply because there is a recession. In fact, they are likely to judge them more harshly as a result of the excuse. Sometimes it comes down to the values of the management or owners of the company, which they may or may not compromise due to their balance sheets.

At Patagonia, however, we are lucky that our mandate starts with making the best product without causing unnecessary harm. This puts social and environmental responsibility at the forefront of every decision we make, no matter in what part of the company or at what level. It is not only one department’s efforts but it starts from the moment a product is being conceived or we realize we can push even harder to lower our footprint on the planet. Our Social, Environmental and Traceability department grew during the recession and continues to grow and the support comes directly from the top.

To what extent are conditions regulated in sourcing fabrics, commodities, each garment we normally wear?

NA: Regulations vary a lot by country, industry and issue. Some countries have very comprehensive laws regulating labor and environmental conditions in the apparel sector, whereas they may have next to none in terms of animal welfare. It is important to note too, that many of the issues that we see in the supply chain, are not always due to lack of a legal framework, but lack of enforcement. This is why we as brands have to partner with our suppliers to ensure they have the knowledge and tools to meet legislation and implement best practices. We seek out the very best factories, regardless of where they’re located.

They say that these producers are more vulnerable than others who are somewhat larger, do you negotiate with them responsibly and ethically? What criteria do you follow in this?

I’m afraid this is not really in my area of expertise, however I believe that Patagonia always strives to act responsibly and ethically with our suppliers. We tend to have long-term relationships with our supply chain, and we invest a lot of time finding and vetting the right business partners. All suppliers are held to the same standards, regardless of their size but we definitely partner with our suppliers to understand their challenges and believe in structuring the way they get to full compliance so that they are successful. We’ve found a one-size-fits-all program does not work and if fact can create scenarios where suppliers hide the real conditions from the brand because they are inflexible. Respectful partnerships and customization of your program to the supplier’s needs really unleashes creative problem solving and the supplier’s commitment to make the changes necessary.

How does communication with the consumer work when trying to get empathize with your efforts to ensure a fair and sustainable product?

The basis of our relationship with consumers is transparency. We dedicate a lot of effort in educating our consumers about our ethos, our standards, and our efforts to do no unnecessary harm and most especially our challenges and failures. You have to talk about the difficulties or your message is not genuine. We aren’t afraid to go out there and say “hey, we haven’t figured this out yet but are really trying and here’s how….” An example: when we found that part of our down supply was found to originate in force-fed supply chains, having been notified in a very public manner by the animal welfare group Four Paws, we communicated our findings of onsite visits, as well as our efforts to create a rigorous and open standard for animal welfare. We constantly reach out to consumers through our digital media, our marketing campaigns, our blog, and also through films, books and lobbying efforts to engage in an honest and open dialogue about the issues we believe in – the good and the bad. We are lucky to have a consumer base that is passionate about environmental and social issues, and they are generally welcoming of our efforts in all areas of sustainability. We value their feedback. We know we are not perfect – by any means – but are open to showing how we are working to becoming better every day.

Do you think that these demands will ever become a required standard? Is there a need for market regulation or will the market mature on ist own and eventually demand it?

It depends on what the issue that you are talking about, and what your standard is. Sometimes the private sector can lead the way in raising standards, but in other cases, there can also be a race to the bottom, when companies search for just low prices. The fact that consumers have much more access to information than ever before, and that younger generations tend to more value driven than prior generations, might point to further regulation for how business act, but I think this remains to be seen but we are very hopeful,.

Why do you think events such as Sustainable Brands Barcelona are important?

I think that these events are very useful, in that they bring companies from very different industries and countries together to share best practices in sustainability. Often, we find ourselves in sector-specific venues, and do not hear about the advancements of companies unlike our own. We have to keep the collective conversation going as it builds momentum and proliferates best practices. This conference is in an important part of keeping that engine running.

What would you like to come out of this international event, what result do you want most?

I’d like to get an overview of the sustainability initiatives from companies not in the outdoor industry. I’d also like to make contacts among people who are based in or near Barcelona, which is where I live. We are really making a big effort to understand the issues that Europe holds near and dear so we can be sure to address and communicate the sustainability efforts they want to hear.