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What is Fair Trade Clothing & How is it Regulated (10 Essential Principles)

by Boris Hodakel  • September 22, 2019 • 10 min read

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There is a lot of talk surrounding sustainability in the fashion industry. However, what do all these buzzwords actually mean? Eco-friendly, fair trade, ethical and green clothing can appear to carry similar meanings, but there are some differences in each.

In this blog, we look at ethical trade in the textile sector. Plus, how this can help to improve sustainability across the fashion industry.

What Is Fair Trade Clothing?

Fair trade clothing is apparel that has been produced based on ethical trade standards. In the free market capitalist system that dominates global commerce, which is commonly known as "free trade," a principle of "survival of the fittest" dominates. This principle has led to incredible innovations that have improved the lives of millions of people, but it has also led to the harm of factory workers and other links in the supply chain.

Seeking to rectify this imbalance of power, fair trade lays down guidelines for apparel manufacturing that put significant restrictions on the basic free trade model. In many cases, the principles of ethical trade dovetail with other progressive trade principles like environmental sustainability in manufacturing, the promotion of sustainable materials like organic cotton, and the improvement of worker access to health care and other important necessities.

Consumers often prefer apparel products that are fair trade-certified because of the association that this movement has with increased consumer responsibility. In some cases, sustainably produced products from American fashion brands like Patagonia or Prana may also be higher quality than mass-produced conventional clothing from China, India, or Bangladesh. It's even common for these garments to be certified by non-profit organizations like Fair Trade USA that also certify products like fair trade coffee.

What Is Fair Trade in the Fashion Industry?

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Fair trade, simply put, describes an international movement that strives to assist manufacturers and producers in developing countries to take advantage of better trade deals. The goals of this movement include ensuring everyone gets a fair deal on pricing and better working conditions. Plus, ethical trade encourages improvements in the communities where clothing and textiles are produced.

In some manufacturing countries, it is often assumed that there are adequate working environments for garments workers. Unfortunately, this is not the case. A report by the British Retail Consortium shows that "up to 90% of garment workers are paid below the National Minimum Wage, do not have employment contracts and are subject to intense and arbitrary work practices." These staggering figures put into perspective that ethical trade manufacturing and trading is a vital social movement for the developing world.

With this in mind, the World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO) has 10 principles that member companies should follow in their daily operations. It also encourages others to join to improve standards worldwide.

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Take a look at the WFTO's main aims of fair trade below:

10 Principles of Fair Trade

1. Creating opportunities for economically disadvantaged producers

Organizations should strive to help impoverished producers to move out of income insecurity and encourage self-sufficiency.

2. Transparency and accountability

Every organization should have total transparency with trading partners and ensure communication is open and honest.

3. Fair trading practices

This covers a wide area including social, environmental and economic factors. The whole supply chain should be respected, and no organization should profit at another's expense. Payment should be made promptly, and contracts should be upheld whether you are a smaller company or larger producer.

4. Fair payment

This principle looks at several aspects of fair payment including:

  • Fair prices: Prices should be negotiated to find a good deal for everyone and incorporate a fair profit.
  • Fair wages: Payment of fair wages in relation to the local living wage should be paid to workers.
  • Local living wage: Wages should equate to a fair amount for the region for no more than a 48-hour working week. This wage should also provide a decent standard of living including food, water, accommodations, and other living expenses.

5. Ensuring no child labor or forced labor

Every organization will adhere to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Plus, follow local laws on child and forced labor.

6. Commitment to non-discrimination, gender equity, and women’s economic empowerment and freedom of association

Policies should be in place to ensure no discrimination takes place within an organization on any grounds.

7. Ensuring good working conditions

Every work environment should provide a safe and healthy workspace for individuals. Adequate health and safety procedures should be in place to protect workers.

8. Providing capacity building

This principle supports marginalized workers in improving management and production capabilities for a better and fairer future.

9. Promoting ethical trade

All organizations under the WFTO agree to support, promote and share the message of the ethical trade community to help improve manufacturing conditions and practices around the world.

10. Respect for the environment

Alongside the improvements for communities under this movement, organizations also strive to maximize sustainable resources and reduce their carbon footprints to improve broader environmental issues.

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For more information about these above principles, visit the World Fair Trade Organisation page on this subject. In essence, fair trade is the trading of goods under the above regulations to ensure fairness and economic growth in the communities of the producers.

Why Is Fair Trade Important?

While free market capitalism has delivered the greatest quality of life improvements in the history of civilization for the most people around the world, this incredible engine of innovation can be harmful if it isn't properly regulated. While it's great for people in the United States or Canada to have access to inexpensive cotton products, this benefit is reduced if cotton farmers in China or India don't receive fair compensation that promotes sustainable livelihoods.

Ideally, international textile producers would adopt fair trade factory practices, such as using low-impact dyes and natural fibers, without any external input, but the business model of profit at any cost is naturally antithetical to ethical oversight. Therefore, it's necessary to influence the global textile industry to adopt sustainable practices by introducing ethical trade principles into the global market and allowing consumers to invest in a trend that will gradually shepherd the international textile trade toward practices that benefit every contributor to the supply chain.

The Negative Global Impact of Conventional Clothing Production

In 2013, the importance of ethical trade practices stopped being an abstraction and became all too real for the millions who looked on in horror as the tragedy of the Rana Plaza collapse unfolded. Rana Plaza was an eight-story building in Bangladesh, and this commercial structure housed thousands of textile workers every day as they toiled for pitifully low wages.

On April 23rd, 2013, the owners of Rana Plaza were warned to evacuate the building due to the sudden appearance of structural cracks that extended deep into the foundation. The owners, however, chose not to heed this advice, and the textile workers of Rana Plaza were ordered back to their jobs the following day. On April 24th, Rana Plaza collapsed, and when the search for the dead ended three weeks later, it was determined that over 1,100 people had lost their lives in this tragedy.

The Rana Plaza collapse was the deadliest building collapse in modern history, and it clearly demonstrated the extent to which textile producers are willing to discount the health and well-being of their workers in pursuit of profit. While it's true that the workers who died or were injured at Rana Plaza could have chosen not to come to work that day, economic opportunities are practically nonexistent in Bangladesh, which means that many of these workers were (and still are) faced with the impossible choice between substandard working conditions and death by starvation.

While the story of Rana Plaza is horrific, it isn't unique. Workers throughout the developing world face incredibly difficult choices as they attempt to find ways to provide for their families. In many cases, these workers are uneducated, malnourished, and easy targets for local companies and international corporations that thrive on cheap labor. For instance, Foxconn, which manufactures iPhone components, was forced to install netting around its dormitories due to how commonplace worker suicide by jumping out of windows had become.

As long as the textile trade isn't fair, disasters like the Rana Plaza collapse will continue to occur. It's up to the textile industry to choose ethical practices above maximum profits, and it's up to us as consumers to drive change by supporting fair trade companies and reducing the annual growth of international corporations that refuse to embrace the benefits of keeping trade fair.

How Fair Trade Manufacturing Is Encouraging Growth in Slow Fashion

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Fair trade and ethical fashion are principles related to the finer details of how garments are produced. This focus provides a boost and supports growth in the slow fashion sector. Ultimately, slow fashion works towards creating longer lead times and producing higher quality and more expensive fashions that last longer.

Fashion plays a huge role in the global economy. Not only does it contribute to millions of jobs, but it also brings in over £1 trillion in revenues across the world. Unfortunately, this booming industry is starting to take its toll on the environment, and this isn’t the only area that suffers. The mindset of fast fashion still reigns supreme. And, with clothing brands turning over stock every few weeks, this is impacting the individuals producing the clothing.

How Do You Shop for Fair Trade Fashion?

In short, unless you do your research, it is not always obvious who supports this initiative. There are some hurdles to shopping for ethical fashion products too. Brands may source fair trade cotton or fabric and then manufacture it in an unregulated factory. This then counteracts your good intentions when you choose to shop ethically.

There are some ways to make fair trade shopping easier. New apps, such as Good On You, have been developed to help individuals make better lifestyle choices. This app, which is available for desktop, iOS, and Android, takes information from organizations such as the Fair Trade Foundation, the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), and Greenpeace, and it ranks brands based on the ethical practices they pursue.

Best Fair Trade Clothing Brands

Here are some examples of fair trade fashion brands that are making a difference in the global textile industry:

1. Patagonia

Patagonia was one of the first companies to embrace the benefits of fair trade certifications, and this company works with fair trade-certified factories in Los Angeles, Sri Lanka, and India. This sustainable textile producer is well-known for its jackets for men and women, and Patagonia also produces, pants, shorts, and T-shirts.

2. Prana

Prana only works with fair trade-certified factories, and this company mainly makes outdoor clothing for men and women. The Prana brand was founded in 1992, and this company is now a subsidiary of Columbia.

3. People Tree

The folks at People Tree go out of their way to make sustainable style fashionable. This London-based company has been working with ethical apparel artisans for decades to produce some of the most environmentally-friendly and attractive clothes on the planet.

4. Everlane

Based in California, Everlane is even more focused on transparency than most ethical apparel producers. Every piece of information relating to how an Everlane product was made is available to customers, and this company's apparel features a minimal aesthetic that sets it apart from earthier competitors.

5. Pact

Pact is based in Colorado, and this certified B Corp makes organic and non-GMO apparel that's cheap enough for almost every consumer to afford. This company makes a wide variety of different types of apparel from activewear to casual, everyday styles.

How to Join the Fair Trade Community

There are a number of different ways to get involved in the ethical trade movement. As a consumer, you can start choosing products that are sourced sustainably and that reward each link of the supply chain equally. Getting started is as easy as selecting garments from ethical apparel manufacturers whenever you need new clothes.

If you're an existing apparel brand, you can get involved in the ethical trade community by changing the suppliers that you work with. If you've been selecting a supplier specifically because they offer their fabrics for very low prices, it's likely that this supplier doesn't observe the most stringent ethical guidelines when they produce textiles.

Switching to an ethical trade manufacturer will allow you to feel better about the apparel you produce, and it will also open up a whole new vertical within the consumer economy. Conscious consumerism is becoming more and more popular around the world, and making sustainable apparel choices is now becoming a status symbol among trendy urbanites from New York to London.

As a fiber manufacturer, you can adopt ethical trade practices in your manufacturing environments. Make sure that your workers receive great pay whether they work in New Zealand or Indonesia, and choose environmentally-sustainable fabrics whenever possible. As the manufacturing, merchandising, and consumer worlds continue to emphasize the value of ethical trade, this international movement will only become more prominent and influential on the global economy.

How Is Fair Trade Regulated?

There are organizations throughout the world that are attempting to standardize policies surrounding ethical trade. The World Fair Trade Organisation (WFTO) is a global network of hundreds of these organizations. European counterparts include the British Association for Fair Trade Shops (UK BAFTS) and the European Fair Trade Association (EFTA).

Each organization uses different methods to monitor the standards of its members. This can cause differences in policy between individual and global standards. However, the implementation of the Guarantee System (GS) by the WFTO brings together the main components for membership of this movement.

This innovative scheme verifies compliance for all industries rather than focusing on product-specific membership. Once a company has successfully completed the GS process, they can then proudly display a label on their products to give consumers assurance on their ethical and sustainable trade compliance.

Growth and change are fundamental within all industries including fashion. However, it's important to avoid getting caught up in using a vital economic standard as a catchphrase or buzzword as it is important to remember the true meaning behind classifying clothing as fair trade.

Join Sewport and search for fair trade clothing manufacturers today!

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About the author:

Boris Hodakel is the founder and CEO of Sewport - an online marketplace connecting brands and manufacturers, former founder of various clothing manufacturing services. He is passionate about e-commerce, marketing and production digitisation. Connect with Boris on LinkedIn.