State Department Gives Corporate Excellence Award to Patagonia, Accused of Using Chinese Slave Labor

Patagonia has been accused of using cotton produced in Xinjiang

Merchandise at a Patagonia store. / Getty Images
December 9, 2021

The State Department gave a corporate excellence award Wednesday to an apparel company that has been accused of using Chinese slave labor to make its products.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken gave Patagonia the agency's "climate innovation" award for its work on environmental issues in Argentina. The State Department bestows the honor on companies that "represent American values in the way they do business." Five other companies received awards alongside Patagonia, known for its trademark fleece vests.

A self-proclaimed "activist company," Patagonia has been accused of using cotton produced in Xinjiang, China, where the Chinese government has forced Muslim Uyghurs into labor and reeducation camps. Blinken has accused the communist regime of waging genocide against Uyghurs. The European Center for Constitutional Rights last week filed a criminal complaint urging Dutch authorities to investigate Patagonia, Nike, and other apparel companies that are "directly or indirectly complicit in the forced labor" of Uyghurs. Patagonia pledged last year to end its sourcing of fibers and manufacturing in Xinjiang after the Congressional-Executive Commission on China found the company was suspected of using slave labor in its supply chain.

The allegations against Patagonia come amid reports the State Department and White House have pressured lawmakers to soften language in a bill that would ban imports from Xinjiang because of forced labor concerns. The Washington Free Beacon reported the White House has lobbied Senate Democrats to block the bill, the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, due to concerns it will undercut U.S. climate negotiations with China. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman has also urged top Democratic senators to oppose the bill, the Washington Post reported.

American companies like Nike and Apple have also lobbied Congress to revise the bill, claiming it is too broad and would ban imports on materials that are not produced by forced labor.

Patagonia has ramped up its political activism in recent years. The company garnered headlines last year by adding the tag "VOTE THE ASSHOLES OUT" to its apparel in protest over the Trump administration's environmental policies. Patagonia sued former president Donald Trump over his decision to shrink the size of Utah's Bears Ears National Monument.

Patagonia has also joined social justice crusades, including the Black Lives Matter movement.

"The Black Lives Matter movement has forced a reckoning of the deep racial injustice around us and laid bare our complicity," Patagonia said in a statement last year, which acknowledged that it was "a white-led outdoor company reliant on recreation on stolen Native lands that are not yet safe for all."

Patagonia also joined a corporate-led boycott of Facebook over its alleged failure to prohibit hate speech on its platform. But while decrying the American social media giant, Patagonia continued advertising on VK, a Russian social media site that blocks gay rights groups and is popular with white supremacists.

The State Department did not respond to requests for comment about its award to Patagonia. The apparel company also did not respond to comment requests.