Fair trade in fashion, what’s up with that?

In the What’s Up With That series we dig deep into common fashion industry concepts. This time around Emma investigated fair trade labels. She found that fair trade does not always make a difference for the individual worker, and that clothes without a label are not necessarily unfair. 

When you’re shopping for a clean wardrobe, you might find yourself screening new clothes for fair trade labels. You want to be sure that your new jeans or shirt is made with respect for the earth and the people you share it with. And a label seems a pretty reliable way to make sure that this is the case. Right?

Well, digging a little deeper we found that there are quite a few fair trade labels out there. Examples in the clothing industry are WFTO (World Fair Trade Organization) and the Fair Wear Foundation. Labels seem to be quite different from each other, too. What does it mean when brands carry a fair trade label? And what does it not mean?

What is fair trade exactly?

Fair trade means that producers in the Global South get a fair price for their products. A price that matches with their real production costs, not with the rates on the international market (as is usually the case). Fair trade also stands for fair working conditions, which are not respected in the fast fashion industry.

How does fair trade improve working conditions for garment workers?

Let’s take a closer look at WFTOs fair trade standard. Guaranteed Fair Trade Organisations are expected to work with factories that pay workers a decent living wage. This should be determined using objective tools that take local living standards into account. The factories have to be transparent about the way they set their prices. There are regular staff meetings and workers reporting malpractices are taken seriously. Workers are protected when working with hazardous materials and there are regular safety checks on production sites. They have health insurance, paid pregnancy leave and possibilities to combine work with taking care of their children. Factories need to ensure that children are not employed and that they have access to education.

Thus, fair trade labels allow brands to prove that they practice what they preach. These labels can be roughly divided in two approaches. The first is product certifiers, which is well suited for raw materials like cotton. The second is guaranteeing organisations, which works better for finished products like fashion.

Certifying products…

Labels that certify products check on social, economic and environmental working conditions for specific products. Fairtrade-Max Havelaar for example certifies fair trade cotton. Every time there is a change in the production, the entire production process gets re-examined. The costs of this check, executed by an independent third party, are billed to the brand itself.

For raw materials this is not that big of a deal: cotton is cotton. But for finished products such as clothing, alterations are common. Using different threads or buttons, changing to a more sustainable dye, or buying materials from a new supplier… All these changes mean the examination has to start all over again. This is where labels become very expensive. Small and upcoming brands cannot afford these costs.

… or guaranteeing organisations?

Rather than certifying products, other labels guarantee that the organisation as a whole follows the fair trade principles. WFTO is one of them. Once every few years, the organisation and a sample of their suppliers and production units are audited by a third party. This works well for fashion, as the production process is so complex.

A problem with both labels is that they only consider one step of the production process. Using fair trade cotton says nothing about the conditions under which a shirt was made. And a fair trade pair of jeans may be produced with uncertified cotton. There are brands that choose to work with both types of labels, but most of them cannot afford it.

That’s complicated… and what about brands without any labels?

We can state that fair trade labels give consumers some direction in what to buy. It means that an independent third party checks on working conditions and pricing methods. But it’s good to bear in mind that a label-less brand is not necessarily unfair. Some brands just cannot afford the process. Others don’t see the value in labels, because they are not popular enough, or because the set standards are not high enough for them.

Some studies (on fair trade coffee and food) even show that a fair trade label doesn’t always lead to a higher income for workers. The workers are mostly organised in cooperatives. These cooperatives collect the fair trade premium and invest it in collective supplies. They are the ones who decide on the salary–not the brands carrying the label. This also goes for fashion: brands can choose the factories they work with. But these factories determine the salary of garment workers.

So, it doesn’t mean anything…?

That’s not true either. With the extra money, cooperatives invest in public services and supplies. They improve the homes of workers, invest in capacity building programs, invest in education and child care, et cetera. Workers obviously benefit from this. It just does not always mean that they earn a higher salary than regular workers. Also, fair trade brands are expected to have long trading relations with producers. Even if the salary is not higher, it is often more stable for fair trade workers.

Conclusion: what to do with fair trade labels?

We can definitely state that labelled brands take serious steps to improve working conditions and salary. But for many certified businesses, there is still room for improvement. And for label-less brands? You can still find out a lot by researching their production process. Transparency is key: base your decision on specific information, not on some sales pitch. It’s beautiful that a brand says they make clothes with respect for the planet on their website. Transparency however means sharing names of factories they trade with, the working schedule of workers, and how they ensure no child labour or forced labour is going on.

This way, you can make a conscious decision even without relying on labels. And we’re here to help you with that! Check out our Brands section for an overview of frank brands, how they produce and any labels they work with.