Nestled within the tropical countryside of Luzon, the largest island in the Philippines, lies a factory that’s surrounded by palm trees and has a volcano for a neighbor. Inside the factory, the people are warm, inviting, and genuinely happy. This is where Cotopaxi backpacks are born—and the location was not chosen lightly.
“We always use factories that have been audited and that signed onto certain agreements and safety accords; however, I don’t trust those alone,” says CJ Whittaker, Cotopaxi’s VP of Product. Cotopaxi utilizes two additional forms of auditing before deciding to partner with a factory. First, they conduct their own personal inspection, and second, they hire a local journalist to interview employees in order to gain a sense of their general well-being. “I want to work with the best partners in the world, but I also need to work with partners who I can create lasting relationships with,” says CJ.
In addition to meeting these strict standards for working conditions, potential factories must also maintain and uphold strict quality requirements. CJ monitors this by looking for signs that the factory employees are true craftsmen and craftswomen.
As with any relationship, building trust takes time. CJ recognizes this, and, as a result, he is willing to invest the time it takes to build a solid relationship with the manufacturing partner. Whether it’s playing sports with the employees, talking about their families, eating lunch in the factory canteen, celebrating World Cup soccer together, or even attending a ceremony to bless the factory, CJ does what it takes to thoroughly understand the culture and the people.
Because many people relocate to work at the factory, it’s important that the factory provides a strong social structure for its employees. This social structure includes a variety of clubs, unions, hiking groups, and even competitive sports teams. Each department, such as the sewing line or the quality assurance line, has its own sports team that plays either basketball, soccer, or volleyball.
After spending time at the factory and with the employees, Cotopaxi wanted to do something to highlight their partnership with them. “We wanted to give them credit,” says CJ. “Our products are souvenirs from these countries. Your backpack was made in the Philippines by Filipino operators—not robots.” Then, Cotopaxi had an idea: Why not include a tag to make it clear where these products were coming from? They wanted it to be the kind of tag that’s designed to be seen and noticed, not just tucked away in small print on a tag the size of a fortune cookie note. So they began working with the locals to design a tag for the backpacks based on the Filipino flag, along with a statement written in their native language. “Employees in our factories loved the idea—they were finally getting credit for their efforts,” says CJ. “They’ve told me they feel good knowing the world will know they made your bag.”
The tags are a way for Cotopaxi to give back to the employees. It gives employees a sense of ownership and recognition, something that ultimately benefits both the employees and Cotopaxi. The more vested the employees feel in the product, the more effort they will put into creating it.
Another motivating factor for employees is the fact that Cotopaxi works closely with non-profits that benefit local communities. “They really appreciate that we’re here,” says CJ. “Every time we place an order for new products, they say thank you—something that has never happened to me in my 10 years of outdoor product design.”
Cotopaxi also hopes the benefits of the tags will extend beyond their immediate partnership with the factories. “I want the tag to give our consumers some connection to the people who make these products,” says CJ. “If people understand more about where their products are coming from, they’ll make more informed decisions. Informed choices like this will help value chains to become more ethical and sustainable.”
So, when you get your Cotopaxi backpack, keep your eyes open for the tag. It’s your backpack’s birth certificate—the first of many passport stamps it will receive from its travels.