Patagonia and The North Face are in a disagreement over which company has the better animal welfare standard for down, the material produced from waterfowl that is used in many of their apparel products.
Both companies have exemplary sustainability track records, so it comes as no surprise that they responded to the lack of an existing animal-welfare standard for down by each creating their own. However, now both companies claim that their own standard is superior.
The two standards differ on some key points. Overall, observers have concluded that Patagonia’s is the stronger of the two. It has a no-leeway policy in many cases. For example, The North Face’s standard allows for “parallel production” – where farms producing certified down can also handle force-fed and otherwise abused birds. Patagonia’s standard does not allow this.
Patagonia’s standard may be more stringent, but is it actually better?
This case raises an important debate in corporate social responsibility. Both companies are industry leaders, commercially and in sustainability, and are therefore hoping that their standards have an impact beyond their own operations. This would be achieved by having other organizations adopt the standards. However, Patagonia’s strict standard is arguably so stringent that it will discourage its adoption by others.
Anne Gillespie of The North Face argues this point, stating that “we certainly wanted to protect as many animals as possible, and in our view, that would be best achieved by rapid and wide-scale adoption of the standard…we don’t want perfection to be the enemy of the good.”
Patagonia certainly sets a higher bar with its standard, but there is a real risk that it will be rejected for being too tough from the outset.