Fair Trade Fashion: How You Can Affect Global Change With the Clothes on Your Back

In 2005, cotton was first added to the list of certifiable fair trade products, making way for huge strides in ethical fashion. In the six years that has passed since then, a significant impact has been made on the cotton industry, not only for the workers overseas, but also in consumer demand for fair trade, eco-fashion garments.

Fair trade fashion means being conscientious of workers conditions, wages, child labor as well as the environment in the production process. Before the founding of the World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO) in the 1980’s, slave labor, harsh discrimination, and lower-than-low working conditions, as well as many other similar issues ruled the world of not only cotton, but other commonly imported products such as bananas, chocolate and coffee. This came from many corporations going overseas to find cheap labor and the lowest environmental standards they could find. This left many scars on the workers that slaved away for 14+ hour days in unhealthy sweatshops and on the ecosystems surrounding these small communities.

Around the world, there are 5 million farmers, workers and community members that benefit from fair trade. The fair trade model means empowering communities to take care of themselves and their ecosystems. When farmers are able to produce crops under healthy conditions, the quality of the product is much higher, also meaning they get a better price for it. They are able to support their families, send their children to school and live healthier, more self-sustaining lives away from the fierce grip of unfair labor practices. Even through the purchase of one simple cup of coffee, you are supporting a farmer and his family, as well as his community and the ecosystem surrounding it overseas.

Although the demand for fair trade fashion has grown, many people still assume that concept means paying an outrageous amount for not-so-stylish clothing. Many large retail stores lack transparency, meaning we don’t always know where our clothes come from.

How do you know if your clothes are fair trade? One way is to simply look at the label. Many fair trade certified clothing will have some sort of logo, for instance, UNITE is an international program that makes sweatshop free clothing.

Social Accountability International’s Social Fingerprint (®) program is a program for companies that looks at nine different key categories to determine that company’s level of social responsibility, as well as offering tips, guidelines and resources to help those companies continually improve. Companies such as Gap, Patagonia and Timberland have used the Social Fingerprint program to ensure social responsibility throughout the garment production process.

Fair Trade Business and Fashion

Fair Trade Fashion

Fair Trade is a social movement as well as a market based approach, evolved for the welfare of developing countries. It ensures whether the deal between developing countries and developed countries is fair or not. It has been guarding some basic items lately, such as cotton, handicrafts, coffee, tea, fruits, chocolates, gold etc. But now it is involved in almost everything, including fashion. Though fashion is not a thing commonly traded or exchanged, but it doesn’t mean it can never be a part of the trade between countries.

Fair trade fashion is a policy which every fashion company of developing countries, engaged in trading their stuff, has to agree with. Instead of focusing on any single culture, country or tradition, it aims at the entire world. It has a huge impact on the standards of fashion – clothing and designs. Many famous brands do their level best to fulfill all the policies of this movement. It has some strict standards regarding the fabric, used in the stuff, prices, designs and all the material involved in the making of the pieces to be exported or imported. This organization has the responsibility of garments, bags, shoes, accessories, caps, wallets, scarves and all the other things included in the list of today’s fashion world.

It is a must for a fashion company that wants to export its goods, to keep pace with the fair trade fashion requirements. These requirements are sometimes very hard to keep up with, but on the other hand these are always beneficial for the world’s economy. This policy has rules that state fashion designers or fashion brands should keep the prices of their products according to the products demand and prevailing price in the country they are willing to sell. This is because many people put unaffordable prices out of greed to get higher profits.

Not only has this, but the organization of fair trade’s fashion sector has also kept a strict eye on the quality of the fancy products which are to be exported or imported. For this, they require complete record of the quality in making or manufacturing of that product. If a brand or fashion company passes all these quality tests, this movement issues a certificate for them. The certificate shows that the company has making eco-fashion garments; helping that particular company to have a rise in its sale.

Apart from the quality and pricing, fair trade’s fashion sector also safeguards the rights of labor, working in the manufacturing of the fancy products. It strictly prohibits child labor, and does not support that brand, company or designer who employs children for the making of their stuff, which is to be sold abroad. It finds child labor very common in the developing countries. That’s why it is amongst the most important requirements to win the certificate of fair trade fashion.

Fair Trade Fashion – How Do You Define ‘Fair’?

Buy a pair of jeans, and the chances are they’ll have travelled further across the globe in their short life than you.

The clothing and apparel industry is a complex one. It is now common for a piece of clothing – let’s take that pair of jeans, for example – to be made up of components from five or more countries, often thousands of miles away, before they end up in our high street store where you buy them.

Fair trade fashion aims to create clothing and accessories that take into account their impact on the producers who make the goods at all the different stages of its production. Ethical fashion companies are not engaged in a ‘race to the bottom’ in pursuit of the very cheapest products at the expense of producers’ livelihoods and their environment. Ultimately, this is an international trading system built on equitable relations and fair dealings.

So far, so good. But how do you define the notion of ‘fair’?

Although there is no universally accepted benchmark for what a fair price is, it is generally accepted that producers earning a fair wage are able to live relatively comfortable lives within the context of their local area. This means enough money for housing, a generous amount of food, health care, education for children, and some disposable income.

Commodities such as coffee, tea and fruits offer a very simple economic model. They are traded in commodity markets daily, resulting in a global market price. Importers can simply pay a premium above that market price and they are following the rules set down by the major certification schemes.

Manufactured, of ‘finished’, goods like clothing or jewellery or accessories are much more complicated because components often come from literally dozens of sources. Also, wages, labour laws, and factory conditions are much more difficult to monitor compared to commodity prices. So for example, it becomes very difficult to define what constitutes an ethically-sourced pair of jeans.

That’s why fair trade fashion items are not all certified and stamped yet. It’s not that they are trying to con you. It’s just that the companies are ahead of the certification bodies.

However, as a consumer you can easily identify some key practices and attributes that an fair trade fashion company should pursue if it is genuinely working in an ethical way.

Firstly, the very fact that enterprises are working with value-added goods, like jeans or necklaces, is positive. Although the trade in coffee is fantastic, coffee is just a raw material, the real value of which is gained when you use those beans to make a cappuccino. When you buy a fair trade coffee in London or New York or Paris, the farmer obviously benefits, but the great majority of the price you pay goes to the coffee company, not the farmer in coffee farmer in Ethiopia or Colombia. The value-added element, which is a posh way of explaining how some beans and hot water and milk can be sold for £2.50 or $4, goes into the pockets of European or US companies.

With fair trade fashion, producers are essentially exporting finished products, for which there is a higher added-value, rather than just raw materials. Continuing with the example of the pair of jeans, the producers are exporting a finished pair with pockets, a zipper and button, not just reams of denim in a roll. So they are benefiting by earning more money and gaining more skills. This is a huge benefit to producers in developing countries.

In addition, in the world of fair trade fashion, companies tend to work with eco-friendly products such as organic cotton, organic wool, recycled fabrics and natural dyes. This has huge environmental benefits.

Ethics in fashion is growing, and with more and more top designers becoming involved in the movement, and sustainability growing in importance, this is an issue that isn’t going to disappear. The certification bodies are likely to catch up with the leading companies to introduce some kind of labelling system. And when the storm clouds of the global economy start to move away, this movement will still be there.

Because the bottom line is that the low-cost-at-any-cost global economy just isn’t sustainable.