As a vehicle for economic parity, “fair trade” is a designation that most people associate with coffee, chocolate, or bananas. Three years after a factory collapse in Bangladesh killed 1,134 garment workers, however, Fair Trade U.S.A. wants to apply similar standards to the clothing industry. As the leading third-party certifier of fair-trade products in the United States, Fair Trade U.S.A. does more than ensure fair wages. The nonprofit’s trademarked Fair Trade Certified designation takes into account factors such as a brand or manufacturer’s environmental impact, workplace conditions, and management-employee engagement. To help us understand more about fair-trade fashion in general, and Fair Trade U.S.A.’s work in particular, Ecouterre turned to Maya Spaull, the group’s director of apparel and home goods.
What is fair-trade fashion, exactly?
Fair-trade fashion is all about producing clothing with respect for people and the planet. When you see a T-shirt with the Fair Trade Certified logo, you know that farmers and factory workers protected the environment, worked in safe conditions, and earned additional income to invest in their families and in their communities. It’s a win-win-win.
The fair-trade system takes a holistic approach to making a difference in the lives of farmers and workers, addressing both labor and environmental elements.
To earn certification, factories must meet a set of rigorous, independently-audited criteria that help uphold the fundamental rights of workers, enable transparent supply chains, and protect the environment. For example, working hours are strictly regulated, and all Fair Trade factories must have a waste-management and water-protection plan.
“When you see the Fair Trade Certified logo, you know that farmers and factory workers protected the environment, worked in safe conditions, and earned additional income to invest in their communities.”
Perhaps the most unique element about the fair-trade system is the fair-trade premium, an additional amount of money that brands contribute into a worker run bank account.
The factory workers independently manage this money and vote democratically on how to use it. Some worker groups have voted to distribute this money as an additional cash bonus, while others choose to invest in critical community projects like education and healthcare. Either way, the power is in the hands of the worker.
How does third-party certification make a difference?
Studies show that the best way to verify a product’s claims is through third-party certification or verification.
Fair Trade U.S.A.’s model is unique in that we provide a mechanism for businesses to directly invest in workers on the front lines of their supply chains, and offer shoppers a way to easily find products that were made according to their values. Just look for the label.
The Fair Trade Certified logo is a signal to shoppers that rigorous standards have been met in the production, trade and promotion of that product, all of which are available online at fairtradeusa.org.
What real-life examples have you witnessed of fair trade making a difference in the fashion business?
One of my favorite parts of this work is seeing what factory workers choose to invest the premium in. Sometimes it can be quite different from what you and I might expect is needed in a particular community.
In India, for example, factory workers were getting wet on their walk to work during monsoon season. They were not only uncomfortable, but the damp clothing continuously posed health and safety risks.
The workers got together and voted to purchase raincoats with FT premiums so that everyone could arrive to work dry and healthy.
Another factory voted to start a women’s health program, while others have purchased bicycles to help workers save large amounts time and money on their commute while reducing tardiness. These are wonderfully creative solutions, led by workers, to address critical challenges.
“We believe there is great power in collaboration to address issues such as living wage and working hours that are unacceptably high in many regions.”
What is Fair Trade U.S.A.’s stance on “living wages”?
Living wage is one of the most important conversations in the apparel industry right now.
Currently there is not one universal set of living wage metrics, which makes it difficult for the industry to raise the bar together.
We’re starting to see collaborative initiatives around this, like the Global Living Wage Coalition, but there is still so much work to be done to better understand the true cost of our clothes.
How does Fair Trade U.S.A. work with other organizations or trade unions on wider issues?
Fair Trade U.S.A. participates in several industry-wide conversations, including ones led by Sustainable Apparel Coalition, Textile Exchange, Fair Labor Association, Social Accountability International, and important awareness-raising efforts like Fashion Revolution Week.
We believe there is great power in collaboration to address issues such as living wage and working hours that are unacceptably high in many regions.
It’s also exciting to innovate together around worker training tools and compliance with the goal of creating more sector wide efficiencies.
What are some of the obstacles standing in the way of a fairer fashion industry?
The biggest challenge we see is the indifference of the vast majority of brands in the apparel and home-goods space.
Fair trade is small relative to all production in the industry, but it has proven to be a meaningful tool to support sustainable livelihoods and deliver additional resources to factory workers worldwide.
It’s the corporations doing nothing to improve labor standards and wages that pose the biggest risk to the future.
Another issue is that most consumers really don’t think about the people behind their clothing, or the true costs of what it took to produce that item on people and planet.
Many shoppers want the hottest trends for the least amount of money, but we rarely think about what it means for a shirt to be $5—it’s hard to believe that price supported a fair wage for the person who made it.
We combat both of these issues with education and direct engagement with factories, brands and consumers.
“We rarely think about what it means for a shirt to be $5—it’s hard to believe that price supported a fair wage for the person who made it.”
For example, Fair Trade U.S.A. shares impact stories on social media and other channels throughout the year. The goal is to highlight the true cost of our clothing, to show that there are people behind our products, and to empower shoppers to choose products that were made with care for everyone involved.
We also run two annual campaigns, one for Fair Trade Month and one Mother’s Day.
This year, our Mother’s Day campaign is called FairHer, aimed at celebrating the women throughout the supply chain who make fair trade a reality.
This, of course, includes women apparel factory workers, as well as women who purchase or help brands source Fair Trade clothing.
We still have a ways to go before ethical shopping and sourcing become mainstream, but we’re definitely seeing a rise in demand for ethical products.
We’re proud to say that 59 percent of the U.S. population is aware of the Fair Trade Certified label.
In addition, brands that launch fair trade feel rewarded with positive outcomes and usually grow their commitments. Patagonia, for example, launched with 11 Fair Trade Certified women’s products in 2014, and now offers over 200 Fair Trade products across their men’s, women’s and kid’s portfolio.
What’s your No. 1 piece of advice for fashion consumers who want to shop more responsibly?
As we remember those who lost their lives in the Rana Plaza collapse and celebrate Fashion Revolution Week, it’s more important than ever to think about the people behind our clothes.
Every dollar we spend is a vote for the kind of world we want to live in.
When you buy Fair Trade Certified products, you’re voting for sustainable livelihoods, thriving worker communities, and environmental protection.
You’re voting for safer factories, equal rights for women, and prohibitions of both slavery and child labor. Fair trade is not a panacea—it cannot solve all of the problems in the industry alone—but it can be part of the solution.
“Your purchase of fair-trade clothing brings makes the world fairer for apparel factory workers, one T-shirt, pair of pants, or jacket at a time.”
Your purchase of fair-trade clothing brings makes the world fairer for apparel factory workers, one T-shirt, pair of pants, or jacket at a time.
Has the Rana Plaza disaster made it easier to talk about the importance of fair trade?
Rana Plaza was a terrible disaster, but unfortunately not an isolated incident. In the last few years alone we’ve seen numerous fires and other accidents that put the safety of workers at risk.
These occurrences are making shoppers and businesses realize that something must be done. Fair trade is an important tool that can be part of a long term solution.