Last July, Oakland’s Fair Trade USA reached a significant landmark in the fair trade fashion industry with the development of the world’s first-ever certification for ethically manufactured apparel. But the battle hasn’t been won. At last Monday’s Global Action Through Fashion event, panelists of well-informed fair trade experts and activists highlighted challenges that still face the industry. Read on for more on what fashion labels need to overcome to improve apparel manufacturing conditions worldwide.
First established within the farming industry, the concept of fair trade was introduced to ensure producers receive fair premiums for their goods, an idea that may be lost on many consumers. But according to one panelist, understanding fair trade shouldn’t necessarily be the first step in educating consumers.
“Consumers don’t know how clothes are made in general. I took video of our factory and then put it on our Facebook page and it turned out to be the most-consumed piece of content. One person posted, ‘I had no idea, I thought my clothes were made by robots,'” said Jeff Denby of Berkeley-based organic underwear brand PACT, which hopes to become fair trade certified.
Why PACT isn’t yet is another fair trade challenge: certification is hard to come by. With strict rules and regulations that are about 20 pages long, certification has proven to be difficult for a company to follow. For PACT, achieving the distinction will mean switching its organic cotton source to another that is fair trade certified, a risky move in a fluctuating organic cotton market.
Guidelines notwithstanding, small businesses in particular face fair trade hurdles.
“For small businesses, they are often only a very small percentage of a factory’s production and so one challenge is actually convincing their factory to go through a very robust audit that is going to require them to make some changes with how they do their business,” explained Tierra Del Forte of Fair Trade USA.
So far, no factory has passed inspection on the first try, added Del Forte.
Despite these roadblocks, Santa Rosa apparel line Indigenous Designs, has managed to obtain the fair trade certification as not just a retailer of a few fair trade products, but as an entire company.
“For us, it’s just the right way to do things and how to be conscience about it, treating people with respect and dignity,” said Matt Reynolds, co-founder of Indigenous, who shows that fair trade certification is something that not only ought to be obtained, but can be.