The first part of this post took a look at outsourcing in developing countries. Outsourcing makes the world economy more efficient, brings cheap goods to consumers and drives up the GDP of developing nations. However outsourcing has a dark side of exploitation, abuse and oppression. It’s a complex issue, and one that everyone should try and educate themselves on.
For this second part I want to focus on the responses from various hiking/climbing companies about the issue. I only contacted companies that I buy from (so there are many companies that are not in the mix here). However this post is not meant to be a summary of findings about specific companies. Instead what I picked up from all of this research is that the really important detail isn’t where the gear is made, but the why behind the where.
A higher standard
It has to be said that hiking/outdoors companies have generally high standards, relative to the brands that usually get linked to in sweatshop exposés (Nike, WalMart, Timberland, The Gap, Disney, etc.). Perhaps it’s because the gear is usually a lot more high-tech and of higher quality than high-street brands, or because the hiking companies are generally smaller companies with a correspondingly more humane code of ethics. Having said that, there’s no reason why we can’t demand ever higher standards from the companies we buy from. If any one company can be profitable and strictly ethical, why not the rest?
The humble homepage.
Gathering information from the company webpage is the easiest way to get a general idea of how the company handles manufacture, either from information presented or information lacking. Osprey packs, for example, go into detail about their choice to move manufacture to Vietnam in order to remain competitive, and their journey in making sure the workers were fairly treated.
Patagonia also have an interesting and honest homepage. They are well known as a company that have a near-autistic focus on the environment. Their corporate responsibility page goes into admirable depth about how they got in ‘too deep’ with outsourcing and found some unwelcome disconnect between them and the people that had been multiply subcontracted into making their clothes.
The number of factories we came to work with ballooned, and some of these subcontracted work to other factories we knew nothing about. We lost track of who we were doing business with and what working conditions were like in many of our factories. For a while we dropped out of the Fair Labour Association.
They cut down the number of subcontractors they used, and began to run audits not just on their cut’n’sew suppliers but even on the raw material suppliers. There are many companies that have a better ethical system in place than Patagonia, but their honesty is admirable and shows that they do have a focus on ethics.
Fjällräven take another tack, the employee training page details the hiking adventures the Swedish employees get to enjoy. You would definitely be forgiven for thinking it was an all Swedish production. The website does coyly proclaim that care is taken for its employees ‘in every corner of the world’. I find it pretty disingenuous to use such careful phrasing in what is so obviously a gambit to make it appear that the gear is still made in Sweden (as far as I know it is mostly made in Vietnam). It obviously works though, most people I know think their Kånken was made here. It also freaks me out a little that Haglöfs (owned by Asics), and Fjällräven (owned by Fenix Outdoors, who also own Primus, Tierra, HanWag and the Swedish retail chain Naturkompaniet) have nearly identically worded codes of conduct (Haglöfs & Fjällräven’s). I guess it’s just shared legalese, but the similarity makes it feels like a ‘cover your ass’ template. Haglöfs said it was a coincidence, Fjällräven failed to reply.
Companies respond, or not.
The problem with homepages is that they only present information that the company wants to present. In the last few months I stepped it up a notch and contacted a lot of companies about how they handle their manufacture. It’s been very revealing. Most fascinating was the inadvertent transparency of the responses, replies from companies that had subpar behaviour (for example, outsourcing the manufacture without any code of conduct for contractors) were terse and defensive, if they replied at all. Replies from companies that didn’t outsource or had systems in place to ensure fair labour were generally long, detailed and friendly.
The little guys
One final detail I picked up on was that small companies generally rocked. A small manufacturer has a small select group of focused and passionate people working for it. The people are not cruel assholes (most individual people generally aren’t). So the work is often done with a focus on fairness and sustainability.
The bigger the company gets, the more disconnected the people become, the more the asshole behaviour comes to the fore. When a company gets bought up by a big conglomerate, then you usually get dictated cost-cutting moves handed down that have to be followed, without any thoughts of humanity. Once a company gets big enough to profitably sell shares it usually does in order to raise capital, and then it has the need to financially satisfy shareholders and the company conscience gets a little more diluted.
When a company outsources, they can skip out on the worry of having to make sure things are fair and safe. It can be someone else’s problem. And if the outsourcer then subcontracts the work, then you are heading into really dangerous territory.
Do all the successful little cottage guys inevitably become big outsourcing guys? Osprey used to be cottage gear, got big and moved production to Asia because all their competitors did. Will it eventually go the same way for Laufbursche?
A complicated stratification
The companies can be roughly broken into various categories.
- Almost entirely based in developed countries
- Röjk make their gear in Sweden and Portugal.
- DMM make all their gear in Llanberis, Wales
- Genelec design and make all their not-at-all-related-to-hiking gear in Finland
- Woolpower sew all their (amazing) garments in Östersund, Sweden
- Owners of Woolpower, Gränsfors Bruks, make their axes in Sweden
- Hilleberg are run from Sweden and have made their tents in their own factory in Estonia for the last twelve years
- KED make all their bike helmets in Germany
- Rock Exotica make all their (crazy!) gear in the U.S.
- Mora make all their gear in Sweden
- Tendon make all their ropes, slings and harnesses in the Czech Republic
- Trangia make all their hardware in Sweden (although the multi-fuel burner is made by Primus and the bags are made in China)
- Laufbursche makes his (superb) gear in Cologne, Germany
- Make most gear in a developed country, but run manufacturing plants in Asia
- Petzl make most gear in France, but some gear is made in Malaysia or China (such as the Meteor helmet)
- Black Diamond run their own factories in China as well as the U.S.
- Hestra make most gear in their own factories in Asia, some dress gloves are made in Sweden or Eastern Europe
- La Sportiva make their premium gear in Italy, cheaper gear in China
- Outsource all or most manufacturing to independent plants in Asia
- Didn’t reply to me Make their gear out of minced baby owls and tiger cubs
This still oversimplifies the shit out of everything. Woolpower or Trangia have a limited, specialised product and can make a ton of gear in Sweden with a small specialised staff and make a profit. Exped make a load of different kinds of gear, making it in Switzerland just wouldn’t be an option. They kick out killer products that have few peers, even if they occasionally have quality control problems with the outsourced manufacture. (Below is a picture an almost brand-new Exped Downmat 7, suffering from the now infamous blown baffle problem. A friend bought it on my recommendation and had this happen after a few trips. My own Downmat is still going strong after innumerable trips though).
Dividing companies by the location of their manufacturing base is an oversimplification. The perfect counterpoint to the idea raised in Part I, that it is wrong to manufacture in an oppressive regime, is demonstrated by Páramo. I had never heard of Páramo before I started to write this article. The company was started by the same guy that started up Nikwax. They manufacture in Vietnam and Columbia, both listed as oppressive regimes. However they consistently get listed as the absolutely most ethical brand, and you can see why when you read their story. Long story short, they work with at-risk women, offering good jobs and wages, putting profits back into the community, building kindergartens and housing.
I still wanted to throw a tricky question at them, and asked how they can justify working in an oppressive regime at all. The reply from the company founder was impressively informed, and spoke to how focused Páramo was on the ethical aspect of manufacture. He pointed out the problem with basing where you manufacture on a criteria of whether countries are oppressive or not, it ignores where the oppression originates from. In Chile (under Pinochet) or Apartheid-era South Africa, oppression originated with the government and so ‘business as usual’ was the goal of the oppressive regimes, and so sanctions and boycotts were an appropriate solution. In Columbia, the situation is complicated, with the oppression ultimately sourced in the lucrative drug trade.
In the case of Colombia, the situation is very different and complex. The primary source of oppression in Colombia is more difficult to track down; it is often hidden. There is no overt government policy, for example, that supports the persecution of trades unionists and journalists – in fact, high profile people may receive police protection, ineffective though it may be. Usually after a certain number of death threats, they either leave the country, or end up murdered.
In my opinion, in Colombia, the primary source of oppression is the corruption that is rife in the country, which in turn, is supported and fed by the drugs trade, which in turn is financed by consumers in Europe and North America. I often think that the most politically effective act in Europe, which would help the Andean countries, would be to name and shame cocaine consumers. They effectively snort blood.
The less we engage with Colombia in terms of offering legitimate trade, the stronger the drug-financed business becomes. The children of the people we employ in Colombia get a decent start in life. As children of prostitutes, without the help that we offer, the boys would be destined to crime and the girls to prostitution. At the same time, we support the Colombian legitimate economy. So am I worried about the ethics of that decision? Not at all.
Poverty is a huge oppressor, and to offer a legitimate route out of it, which in turn is self-sustaining through education, cannot be seen as an oppressive act.
Stunning stuff, and it shows clearly that Páramo are not your average company.
“Made in China” is not (yet) a sexy label. Most companies try to hide Chinese manufacturing, from leaving the tags off (like Tierra do, the sister company to Fjällräven) or assembling/packaging the gear in a Western country and tagging the manufacture as coming from there. And despite all the positive aspects to outsourcing we covered in Part I, it’s important to remember companies also don’t go to developing countries to raise their GDP, they don’t do it to bring people out of poverty, they don’t do it to make the world better. They do it to make more money. The cost-savings are obviously extremely important, as there are plenty of downsides to outsourcing;
- Quality – Having manufacture on the other side of the globe means not having the same level of quality control
- Consistency – Variation in some of the outsourced gear can be very high
- IP theft – Having ideas stolen and sold to other companies, or having ‘off clock’ batches or overproduction runs made for black-market sale
- Lags and minimums – Small runs can’t be made easily, and the shipping time means it can take a long time for gear to get to the market
Does it matter that outsourcing is done in order to make more profit? Aren’t all companies out to make a profit?
You got the money, I got the soul!
Jan, the guy behind Röjk (who make, in my humble opinion, the most versatile hoody of all time), sent me a big mail about why he hadn’t considered outsourcing. And one paragraph just lit a lightbulb over my head,
It’s very expensive to manufacture in Sweden and within Europe, but we can still earn money and have a normal life and for us that’s the most important, not to be too eager and just want to make a lot of money with the cost of other peoples lives.
I have always avoided Black Diamond stuff because so much was made in China. Then after I researched the company I realised that actually they are the kind of company that should have ‘Made Fairly in China’ on their gear. They do outsourcing right and if every company took the responsibility for outsourcing like that the world would be a pretty amazing place. However, when you look at DMM and compare them to BD or Wild Country, and see which one made the choice to outsource, and which one decided to just put every penny they had into their factory and to just focus on the gear, it seems clear that DMM didn’t put profit on the top of the list. Climbers first, businessmen second.
DMM were full of info when I got in touch with them, and said they looked into outsourcing back in 2004 when everyone was doing it, but decided against it. They wanted a tighter control on manufacturing quality and they wanted the people making the gear to be the people that also used the gear. Staying in Wales and fighting their budget-competitors by out-innovating them was a crazy move, but today as costs of manufacture in Asia rise the choice seems to have paid off. Last year was DMMs most profitable year ever.
This is not to say that ‘not outsourcing’ ≣ ‘soulful’. Even a glance at Patagonia is enough to make you realise they are passionate about what they do. There are really clear examples though, where two similar companies take startlingly different decisions about outsourcing. DMM kept all the work in Wales, Wild Country moved the smithing to Asia. These are two very similar companies whose sole purpose is to make climbing gear. Did WC, by getting rid of the actual gear making, lose a little of the soul? Is the DMM factory, because it’s one big amalgamated group of people doing all the work together, like a family, is that a more passionate environment to be in?
It matters to me. I started all of this research to find which companies made gear fairly and ethically. I found out that most decent companies do have a focus on the ethics and fairness of their labour. However I also found that some companies were less about being a company, out to grow and expand and send dividends to shareholders, but instead were a bunch of people with a core focus, a central ideology that they orbited around. No surprise that these were usually small companies, where the teams of people involved could work together rather than being broken up into departments and divisions, fragmenting their humanity and leading them away from their origins, to eventual faceless corporatism. Small, focused and passionate companies making cool as hell gear.
(edit 1: Rock exotica contacted me after I had written this post, and replied to my question about why they don’t outsource their production with a line that fits perfectly here, “It is such a part of our identity, to make everything ourselves”.)
(edit 2: My good pal Liam had a browse through this post and pointed me in the direction of this TED talk, which goes into some lovely detail on companies that keep it real, and also the interesting case study of small ethical companies losing their way as they get bought up by larger companies.)
At the end of the day…
There are a ton of outdoors companies that make a ton of different stuff. Clothing, packs, tents, stoves, ropes, slings, sporks, filters, etc. Every possible piece of gear, made all over the world, in every possible way. We consumers drive that production, choosing the gear we buy based on price and style and fit and finish and weight and a hundred other qualities. After all this research I have two more qualities to give a shit about.
Firstly I want to buy shit from, and thereby support, the most fanatical group of people making that shit. I don’t want my gear made by a low cost vendor, manufacturing it to some spec without a clue what it’s for. I want it made by someone who has lunch in the same canteen as the CEO of the company, and then goes out and uses the gear after work is over. Secondly I want gear that was made ethically, either in the developed world, in a company owned factory in the developing world, or by a strictly monitored vendor with a decent code of conduct.
No doubt the gear made by ethical companies is more expensive than the alternatives. For the price of one Hilleberg tent you could buy enough cheap hiking gear to hike every route in the Alps. There are hundreds of dirt-cheap brands (and even expensive cheap brands, such as The North Face), regularly and heavily implicated in sweatshop labour abuses, offering gear for half the price (or less) of a competing ethical manufacturer, but it’s important to look past the price tag and look at the human cost.
You’re not just ‘voting with your wallet’, you are also revealing your true character.