Like many of you, Fair World Project is concerned with the apparel industry and the farmers and workers involved in the complex, often dangerous, supply chain. This has been especially true after the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh where 1,129 workers died in April. We certainly understand the desire to believe there is a fair trade “gold standard” to assure us our clothing is ethically produced at all levels of the supply chain. Unfortunately, Fair Trade USA’s Apparel Program is not it for three main reasons.
A supply chain that does not include the farmers who grow the raw materials cannot in good conscience be called fair.
Under FTUSA’s policies, for all non-cotton textiles and goods, a brand can enter the program having just the final factory in the supply chain, the cut and sew factory, monitored. This is certainly an important step, but it is only a step that does not include the farmers at the base of the supply chain nor other important processing steps, and it is not fair trade. Fair trade is historically understood to refer to small-scale producers at the farm and primary production level. Increasingly we understand that ethical treatment of farmers and workers cannot stop at the farm gate and Fair World Project fully supports programs that look at the full supply chain. However, to be called fair trade, the farm level for an agricultural product must be included. Small-scale cotton producers cannot compete against large-scale subsidized cotton production.
Even as a social auditing program for factories, FTUSA standards fall short.
The factory standards are based largely on SA8000 standards. This is the same certification program that Rana Plaza passed just weeks before collapsing, as referenced above. Fair Trade USA adds to these standards some additional requirements such as a wage premium ranging from 1-10% depending on how close to paying a living wage the factory gets. However, respected labor groups such as the International Labor Rights Forum have long advocated for mandatory worker representation and empowerment, such as an independent worker association or union, as the best way to ensure health, safety, and fair employment terms. FTUSA’s standards do not include such provisions and in fact do not adequately address several key principles of fair trade such as long-term trading relationships.
The program does not cover the full supply chain.
At most the standards cover on-farm production of cotton and cut and sew production of the final product. Yet there may be 5 or more stops in between including ginning, spinning, knitting, weaving, dying and embellishing. In addition, raw materials such as leather, linen, wool, silk, or synthetics are not eligible for auditing at more than the final factory level. To include such a major stage of post-harvest production in the standards as the cut and sew is a positive evolution in fair trade, which does not traditionally look beyond the farm gate; however, that cannot be in place of certifying at the farm level which is what defines traditional fair trade in the first place. As noted above, the program does not require companies to buy from small-scale fair trade farmers at all. Additionally, because some program marketing materials claim that the entire supply chain benefits, there is a danger in making workers in textile processing steps other than cut and sew invisible rather than educating consumers about the workers in this sector. The number of workers in these intermediate stages is not insignificant
Recently, the apparel industry is under much more scrutiny as gross worker rights violations, unsafe conditions, and exploitation of small-scale farmers come to light. Fair World Project applauds the efforts of innovative companies such as Maggie’s Organics that have pioneered comprehensive ways to do businesses ethically in textiles, addressing all the major steps of the supply chain without making false market claims. We also support campaigns by labor organizations to make incremental changes in the way apparel is produced, for example demanding companies sign the binding Bangladesh Fire and Safety Accord, or fighting against agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership which would drive manufacturing jobs increasingly to countries that do not implement living wages or workers rights policies. We also applaud programs such as the Workers Rights Consortium and Free2Work which monitor apparel brands and factories, either on the ground or based on codes of conduct and other criteria such as certifications that look at just cut and sew without making false market claims about the entire supply chain.
However, we cannot support Fair Trade USA’s Apparel program, as it is both misleading and inadequate. We urge FTUSA to fundamentally improve the scope and rigor of their apparel program, and not allow brands to make false “Fair Trade” market claims that imply comprehensive supply chain certification, when that is not in fact happening.