Fair Trade Fashion: A look behind the labels

Fast fashion has deadly consequences. Time and again, sweatshop accidents around the globe kill and injure workers as they crank out clothes to meet the ever-growing demand for fresh looks for each season. Cotton farming around the globe is linked to struggling farmers and forced labor. It’s clear that something has to change.

The demand for ethical fashion is growing too. #WhoMadeMyClothes, the hashtag and the question asked by Fashion Revolution points to our growing collective desire to know who and how our clothes were made. Two of the leading fair trade certifiers, Fairtrade International and Fair Trade USA, have stepped up to put their labels on all things apparel, offering a fair trade fashion alternative. But the standards behind the labels are worlds apart.

A forthcoming update to the International Guide to Fair Trade Labels compares these standards in depth. We’ll give a summary below, but first, a little on some of the issues in the fashion industry.

A Long Road from Field to Factory

There are many, many steps to get a finished t-shirt or pair of jeans. Cotton starts out as fluffy, white bolls, then gets harvested, ginned to separate the plant from the fiber, and spun into thread. That thread is then knit or woven into fabric—and only then is it ready to be cut and sewn into the things we wear. It’s a long road from the field to the final factory.

Cotton: Deadly for Farmers & Workers

Cotton is one of the crops that are highly likely to be produced using forced labor, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Forced labor is documented in cotton production in the nine countries that produce 65% of the world’s cotton supply. Child labor is also prevalent in cotton growing, as well as in the ginning and milling processes. As in so many other cases, one can’t address these critical human rights violations without addressing poverty. Like so many other farmers, cotton farmers struggle with volatile and low prices for their crop.  These low prices, coupled with rising costs for fertilizers and other essential inputs have had deadly consequences for small-scale farmers, most notably in India, the world’s top producer of cotton.

When you think of who made your clothes, a 14-year-old girl working unrelenting 16-hour days spinning thread until she dies by suicide is probably not what you picture. But she’s there. And research suggests that she’s not alone: forced and child labor exists at 90% of the spinning mills in India alone. Whose clothes are they working towards? It’s difficult to say as major brands rarely disclose the factories that sew their clothes, let alone the sources for the textiles they use. Yet all along the supply chain, the constant race to the bottom and the push to get more, cheaper, and faster is squeezing farmers and workers alike.

Dangerous Sweatshops, Poverty Wages

The sweatshops where clothing is cut and sewn are notorious for labor abuses and fatalities. The building collapse at Rana Plaza in Bangladesh was one of the worst industrial accidents on record. In the years since that 2013 accident, the Bangladesh Accord, a binding agreement between worker unions and global brands focusing on factory safety has made work safer for some workers. Yet throughout the country, and across the industry, low wages and long hours remain the norm not the exception. A recent report found that no major clothing brand “is able to show any progress towards a living wage being paid [to garment workers]. Poverty in the garment industry isn’t improving, it’s getting worse. This situation is urgent.” And, in an industry where most workers are women, sexual harassment and assault are common.

How Fair is a “Fair Trade Certified Factory”?

The problems are huge and systemic. And the solutions that the two leading certifiers are putting forward as “fair trade” are vastly different. The most visible difference is that Fair Trade USA leaves out all the earlier production steps and allows a fair trade label to go on a t-shirt when only the final factory where it was cut out and sewn together was certified. The farmer unable to break even? The child spinning the threads? All of that could be hidden behind a “fair trade factory” label. That hardly seems fair.  By contrast, Fairtrade International requires that every step of production, including ginning, spinning, weaving, knitting, cutting, and sewing be covered to use their distinctive fair trade mark.

Other differences behind the labels include:

Fairtrade International (FTI) Fair Trade USA (FTUSA)
Do workers receive a living wage? All workers must be paid at least minimum wage and must earn living wages at 6 years of certification. Cut and sew factory workers must earn minimum wage. Living wages should be calculated but not required to pay.
Are workers free to refuse overtime work at all times? Yes, and must be paid more for overtime. No. Factories may require overtime and exceptions to overtime policies.
Are facilities required support workers’ unions and collective bargaining? Yes, and they may not have violated freedom of association and collective bargaining for two years prior to application. Companies must honor collective bargaining agreements but are not required to support the development of a new agreement.
Is certification limited to places where workers rights can be ensured? Yes. Certification is not allowed in countries where collective bargaining and freedom of association is illegal. No. Certification is allowed in countries where collective bargaining and freedom of association is restricted by law and workers will thus not have organizing rights.
Are highly hazardous substances banned? Yes. FTI follows the guidance of several international bodies bans on hazardous materials for certification. FTUSA does not ban hazardous substances until year 3 of certification.

The upcoming International Guide to Fair Trade Labels, due to be published in September 2019, further elaborates on the comparison between these standards. Yet even without the in-depth analysis, it is clear that there is a vast difference between these two standards and what stands behind their labels. It’s also clear which one is gaining more traction in the marketplace—unfortunately. Fair Trade USA and their low-bar, partial standards are making gains in the U.S. marketplace, while just a few brands around the world currently meet Fairtrade International’s standards for fair trade fashion.

Fair Trade Fashion Requires Major Changes

Brands with big buying power need to step up. One of the key challenges posed by Fairtrade International’s standards is their commitment to living wages for workers by year 6 of certification. That’s a huge leap forward in an industry where poverty wages are the norm. But it also means that brands have to make significant purchasing commitments to make those wages a possibility. Just one buyer buying a fraction of a factory’s output on fair trade terms (and at fair prices) doesn’t mean that a factory can immediately afford to pay higher wages. While brands can benefit immediately from the ethical perception of offering a fair trade certified product, that difference doesn’t instantly translate to workers in the supply chain.

The fair trade label does not change the truth: brands need to make a commitment to changing practices in order to have an impact on workers and farmers at every step of the supply chain.

Big fashion brands have been slow to put the wellbeing of the people who make their clothes ahead of the push for cheaper, faster production. Instead of shedding light on the long and convoluted supply chains, too many continue to distance themselves from the factories and hands who make their clothes. The fashion industry has a long way to go towards fair—and unfortunately, Fair Trade USA’s standards allow them to sweep too many of those issues under the (fair trade certified) rug.


Photo by: Kimberly Vardeman – “Cotton Harvest” is licensed under CC BY 2.0 and photo by: Ilya lix on Unsplash

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