Right now, it seems like every coffee shop you go to announces that they have Fair Trade coffee, tea, and sugar. This is the product of several years of protesting and government discussion and debate, labor activists finally secured restrictions and guidelines for agricultural workers (including those who work in sugarcane and coffee bean fields). Which is great!
But agricultural workers are not the only ones who are exploited by big name companies in the goal to make cheaper products in high volume. One of the major industries that relies on this business model is clothing. Most of clothing production happens overseas where there are less laws protecting workers and often the garments are produced in unsafe working conditions, such as using child labor or being housed in buildings that are not structurally sound and/or prepared for fire safety. John Oliver has a fantastic video on this issue which you can watch below.
Pretty bad, right? If you never want to shop at any of those stores again, we definitely feel ya. One of the things the video mentioned is that certain corporations like Walmart say they abide by Fair Trade suggestions/policies but they actually do not. So we’ve decided to make a guide to buying clothing that has actually been produced in fair working conditions.
Fair Trade Clothing Myths
Myth: If company sells Fair Trade products, all their products must be made in fair working conditions.
Fact: Fair Trade USA only certifies products, not restaurants or retailers. Meaning that if Target sells Fair Trade chocolate, it does not necessarily mean that their clothing is also Fair Trade.
Myth: The company wasn’t aware that their products were being made under unfair working conditions because one of their subcontractors (suppliers, facilities management, employment agencies) was the one who was facilitating this work and did not report it to the corporation.
Fact: While this may actually be true, we need to push companies to be more aware of who they are doing business with and what is happening once they sign a contract. Social, economic, and environmental awareness should be adhered to in every part of the supply chain, not just the part with the major corporation’s name on it.
Myth: The companies that are a part of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), which includes members such as Gap, Target, Walmart, and Nike, abide by Fair Trade policies.
Fact: Though the 2012 creation of SAC and the Higg Index, a measuring system for companies to ensure more Corporate Social Responsibility, are a great step toward Fair Trade, the current Higg Index only covers environmental factors. These include proper disposal of fabric dyes and buying organic cotton to put less of a damper of the environment. Of course environmental sustainability is very important, but it is not the only factor of importance. The Higg Index does not have any social/labor requirements at the moment (though there are plans to add a module for this topic at the end of 2017). For now, labor conditions are still at the discretion of the corporation.
What Can You Do?
So as one person, what can you do to support Fair Trade clothing?
Well, first you can do research. Look into what the labels on your clothing actually mean, go to the website for the stores you shop at and see if they have any sort of Fair Trade policy, and pay attention to news articles about the clothing industry, labor rights, environmental policy, and/or sustainability. Use this information to make informed decisions about what you are buying and share it with your friends and relatives. To jump start your Fair Trade buying, HERE is a list of socially responsible brands.
If you really want to get involved you can join activist groups such as the Fair Trade Resource Network. You can also come into the Sustainability Resource Center on campus (by PC Theatre) to get involved with the sustainability efforts on campus and/or the Student Sustainability Collective.
Thanks for doing your part, and happy shopping!
- Apparel and Home Goods Program | Fair Trade USA