Sourcing products can be one of the most stressful and complicated things you do as a company. There’s a mind-boggling array of things to consider – cost, lead times, flexibility, confidentiality – and that’s before you get onto more modern business concerns such as the ethics and sustainability practices of the partners you work with. Then there’s the fast-paced changes occurring in many of the traditional overseas manufacturing destinations to think about too – only recently I wrote about the changing landscape of overseas sourcing. So just where do you start? Well, one of the answers could lie a little closer to home that you might think… 

Roughly a six or seven-hour flight away from a whole host of American cities and lying in the same time zone as New York City, Orlando, Dallas and Chicago (depending on the time of year), the South American nation of Colombia is fast-becoming an obvious choice for brands looking for long-term sourcing options. The country is the fourth largest economy in Latin America by GDP and has an array of appealing characteristics that make it worthy of consideration. Examples like shipping times of as quick as three days to many North American ports, tariff-free trade with the United States, and a real focus on sustainable and environmentally-friendly manufacturing processes all work in favour of Colombia. 

Why Colombia?

  • Favourable time zones for the United States
  • Good lead times and fast shipping to North America
  • Skilled workers with high technical expertise
  • Existing trade agreements mean tariff-free dealings with U.S.
  • Strong sustainability and environmental mindset
  • A dynamic, stable and growing economy

But the best way to find out what it’s really like as a sourcing location is by talking to those who’ve been there and done it – an opportunity provided by Outdoor Retailer in a recent webinar where representatives from Patagonia spoke about their experiences in Colombia. Patagonia has had a partnership of some 15 years with Colombian textiles manufacturer Supertex, based in Cali in the west of the country, and has enjoyed an evolving and mutually beneficial relationship with the company in that time.

“One thing that is really hard to find when sourcing a manufacturing partner is finding labour with the technical expertise that you really need with products like outdoor clothing,” said Patagonia’s VP of Social and Environmental Responsibility, Cara Chacon.

“Especially when you are trying to diversify outside of Asia as a sourcing location, it is particularly important, but we found a great level of expertise and high-quality manufacturing in Colombia. We also found that working with partners that have a high level of technical experts also means they are naturally more forward-thinking when it comes to social responsibility.”

This is evident due to the fact that Supertex is a Fair Trade Certified factory – a feat that is by no means easy to achieve, but one that it and Patagonia worked on together, with every member of the Supertex workforce on board with the idea. This Fair Trade certification also means Patagonia pays a premium for each product made by Supertex, the money from which goes into an account controlled by a Fair Trade Committee of workers from the factory. They then decide how it should be spent on local community projects that benefit the lives of people in the area.

The Colombian capital of Bogota is home to 7.3 million people. Photo: Helen Ward

Green growth

Another huge benefit of working with partners in Colombia is the reduced impact on the environment. For starters, Colombia is a lot closer than most Asian countries you can source from, which immediately lowers your company’s carbon footprint. But besides that, it seems that Colombian companies have a real focus on the environment from the ground up. Patagonia has worked with Supertex to develop many initiatives, such as using material scraps to make low-cost garments for Colombian charities – which is something the workforce has really bought into too.

“Many of the environmental initiatives we have in operation now came from the workers in our factory,” explained Supertex Business Unit Director Adrianna Duque.

“Workers are encouraged and rewarded for presenting ideas to the management that can make us kinder to the environment. We now operate as a paperless office, we have metal free certification, we have hugely reduced the amount of plastic used in our production, and solar power now accounts for about 60 per cent of the energy we use.”

Supertex has also worked alongside Patagonia to ensure it sources raw materials from closer to its headquarters, again helping to reduce its carbon footprint.

Colombian manufacturer Supertex works with Patagonia and its workers to create green initiatives. Photo: Helen Ward

The Patagonia and Supertex case study is just one example of how Colombia is building up a reputation as a reliable and sustainable option for overseas manufacturing for brands of all shapes and sizes. Most of its strength thus far has come as a textile and apparel producer, but there are many more production facilities branching out into other areas in the country. This is something that has been realised by the country as a big business opportunity for the future, and it is subsequently hosting an online business networking event at the end of October for interested parties to ‘attend’ to find out more about what working with Colombian companies could do for your business.

As they say in Colombia, they are ‘A La Orden’ (at your service)!