This article originally appeared in B&T.
Surf and sportswear brand Rip Curl made headlines this week when it was revealed some of its stock had been manufactured in North Korea, under slave-like conditions, where it claimed it was made in China. In this opinion piece, Ben Peacock, founder of The Republic of Everyone argues Rip Curl has just ruined all its cool cred – and looks at another brand that Rip Curl should follow.
Another day, another epic brand fail.
This week’s entry to the hall of shame is Rip Curl, its casual dude brand persona busted wide open by the revelation that ski wear labelled ‘Made in China’ was actually made by slaves in a factory in North Korea.
Yes, it takes a pretty extreme fail to make ‘Made in China’ seem like a premium label, but Rip Curl has managed to do it.
Its excuse? Simply put, it didn’t know. Or at least, it did know but didn’t mean to sell them. Or maybe it just thought you’d never go to North Korea on a holiday and notice.
Whatever the case, this was how the company responded on Facebook to the Fairfax article that broke the story:
‘We are very sorry that Rip Curl has breached the trust our customers put in us to make sure that the products they wear cause them no moral concern. That’s our responsibility to you and we have let you down on this one. The Founders and Directors of Rip Curl take full responsibility for this screw up…
‘We were made aware of this some months ago and took immediate steps to investigate and rectify the situation…
Regardless of this, two styles totaling (sic) 4000 units of Rip Curl ski wear did slip through and was shipped to customers.’
Sorry, did you just say, ‘slipped through?’ 4,000 ski jackets, suits and pants? That’s one hell of a crack. Possibly more of a crevasse into which Rip Curl’s trust, reputation and image are all now plummeting.
If the original indiscretion isn’t enough, the language used to talk about it snowballs the problem. Instead of speaking as Rip Curl the company, it speaks as Rip Curl the brand, calling it a ‘screw up’.
This is people being enslaved we are talking about here. It’s supporting a regime that is doing everything it can to threaten the world with a nuclear arsenal. And Rip Curl casually calls it a ‘screw up’. Fortunately the good citizens of the Internet saw through the blizzard of bullshit.
One reply wrote:
‘”The Founders and Directors of Rip Curl take full responsibility for this screw up”, seems to be a typo in the statement, let me correct it “The Founders and Directors of Rip Curl are greedy bastards”.’
‘You expect us to believe you didn’t know where your garments were being made? Are you kidding? Do you just draw up some designs and send them off to ‘Asia’ and hope for the best?’
And it just keeps going:
‘Do you really expect us to believe your crap. You are just another disgusting company exploiting the poor and destitute of 3rd world Countries.’
‘I feel the apology has only been publically initiated because Ripcurl were publically exposed’
Sure, some people made the point that consumers do very little to know or care where the things they buy come from so why should companies? Another said that customers help create the problem by demanding and rewarding cheaper prices, and it’s a fair point:
‘I am working in the garment business for over 20 years now. From Eastern Europe to Asia, this business is based on low labor costs. As long as people in the west don’t want to pay a fair price for their clothes and as long as there is always a supplier…’
Still, as this guy says, responsibility may sit partly with the buyer, but it definitely sits first and foremost with the seller:
‘Ignorance is no excuse. If a major company (or small one for that matter) does not check where their stock is being sourced from, there is something wrong.’
So, Rip Curl has a problem. It needs to fix this ‘screw up’ in its supply chain, it needs to spend a fortune looking for any other potential ‘screw ups’ in its supply chain and it needs to take back any of the ‘screw ups’ that it sold to trusting customers who now want their money back.
Its reward for going through this costly exercise? Absolutely nothing.
Like a lover who has been cheated on, we customers may find it in our hearts to forgive the company and take it back – but we will never quite trust it in the same way again.
But the real problem is much bigger than that. It’s that all over town there are ticking brand time bombs doing the wrong thing by people and the planet hoping they won’t be next Rip Curl. Or worse, the next VW.
A small-minded focus on small, short-term gains have made ‘hide and seek ethics’ the standard in mainstream business and brand thinking. It’s such a pity when a far bigger prize awaits.
Just think, if Rip Curl had done the work it has to do now up front, it could have enjoyed such a huge return on it, instead of none at all. How? Like so.
Patagonia is ethical, sustainable and trustworthy’s poster child. Like Rip Curl, it also makes ski gear.
Not tempted to wait for an investigative journalist to show it up, or to turn a blind eye to morals in order to turn a short-term buck, it has invested in innovating long-term answers to problems endemic to the retail apparel industry. Yes, instead of accepting the flawed system, it has shown the balls to change it.
All its cotton is organic. Its supply chain is mapped and made public (no ‘we didn’t know’ excuses there).
It makes crazy new products like wetsuits out of cactuses, which turn a loss but, they hope, can inspire the industry to join them and move away from environmentally damaging neoprene.
All of this, no doubt, costs Patagonia a fortune. And investing in such airy-fairy things like human welfare and the environment would, no doubt, is frowned upon in the Rip Curl boardroom.
Yet what the bean counters miss is that it also makes Patagonia a fortune. It just takes a little time to do so.
By building its brand on a genuine platform of ethics, trust and transparency, Patagonia’s has created a company whose clothes cost more, yet people pay for them.
Its customers are an army of fans. It doesn’t follow Patagonia on Facebook in the hope of some cheap giveaway. It follows a company that stands for what it stand for. It’s not just engaged with the brand, It’s married to it.
Patagonia has been named the world’s coolest company. And how?
It has spent decades truly understanding the business it is in, setting a moral compass then sticking to it as it guides it to better products that lead it to better profits while all the while sleeping better at night.
It is the cool dude brand Rip Curl wants to be but can’t be. Because, behind its casual persona, Rip Curl has just been proven to be just another company, prepared to do whatever it takes to make short term bucks whatever the damage and cost.
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