Exploring Fair Trade Apparel Part 3: Small cotton farmers continue to get the shaft

As we noted in our last installment of this series exploring fair trade apparel, factory social audits are not authentic fair trade (FT). Another issue with the focus on factory social audits is that it does nothing for marginalized small-scale farmers.

Small and family scale farmers the world over increasingly becoming endangered species. Small farmers face unfair trade agreements, climate change, GMOs, land grabbing, and a whole host of challenges to their livelihood.

The United States government subsidizes US cotton growers to the tune of billions of dollars each year to produce and export cotton below the price of production. This practice is also referred to as “dumping.” Small cotton producers, particularly those in severely impoverished countries in West Africa, are unable to compete and subsequently fall deeper into poverty.

Fair Trade USA’s apparel program does not require the use of fair trade cotton for a product to carry the fair trade seal. Patagonia’s new fair trade line will not include any fair trade certified fibers, like cotton, but will only have one step of the supply chain, “cut and sew” certified. Small cotton growers will be excluded from the potential positive benefits of a fair trade marketplace. While Patagonia will source organic certified cotton for its new line, organic alone does not ensure that farmers receive fair trading terms, much less that the cotton was not grown under exploitive conditions. From Burkina Faso to Uzbekistan, forced labor, child labor and human rights violations are not uncommon. While Patagonia is generally regarded as an innovation leader in the apparel sector, the FTUSA program does not ensure that future companies will source organic and/or fair trade cotton. In fact, there is no safeguard to prevent genetically modified organism (GMO) cotton being used in future fair trade products.

History has shown that uncommitted manufacturers will exploit weak standards in other product categories. For example, FWP has repeatedly underscored the rubber-stamping of FT chocolate products that contain no FT sugar, despite the commercial availability of fair trade sugar. If uncommitted companies are allowed the leeway to not purchase FT ingredients and maximize their own profits, at the expense of FT producers, they do.

As a recent consumer survey, “Fair Trade Labeling Research Findings from a nationwide survey of 1003 Americans aged 18 and over” demonstrates, consumers expect and demand that products certified as Fair Trade be majority fair trade ingredients. FTUSA is creating a deceptive model that neither supports small farmers, nor meets consumer expectations. In other words, FTUSA “cut and sew” label and standard is like selling conventional coffee as “fair trade” simply because the facility that bagged the coffee was certified as “fair.” Or perhaps more clearly, FTUSA “cut and sew” is certifying approximately less than 10% of a given product’s supply chain. Producers, workers and consumers demand more.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *