Fair Trade Clothing – The Pros and Cons

A guest post by Michael Williams
Fair trade clothing is a growing niche within a larger offering of ethical clothing. As a concept, the primary focus is on equality and fairness for the people involved in production.

Although this article focuses on Fairtrade, there are other factors that buyers of ethical products need to consider, these include organic clothing, second hand clothing, recycled clothing, and clothing that protects factory workers, such as those accredited to the Fairwear Foundation standards. It is important not to automatically assume that because a clothing product is Fairtrade certified, it is also organic, sustainable, and ethical in ways outside the remit of the Fairtrade Foundation.

What is Fairtrade?
Fairtrade is a global movement that has been in existence for a number of decades, with the aim of improving the conditions for workers of raw materials in less developed nations. It also looks to provide better pay and more opportunities for these people. It does this by using a minimum price that the raw materials must be bought for, with a “social premium” added on top to help fund schools, and other projects that improve the lives of those in the local community.

Fairtrade is governed by the World Fair Trade Organisation (WFTO) and its network of “fair trade organisations” in different countries. In the UK, this job is given to the Fairtrade Foundation, who provides certification (the labels you see on Fairtrade certified products).

Fairtrade’s remit focuses mainly on the working conditions of producers of raw materials, like cotton, rather than environmental standards or working conditions in factories. Fairtrade also prevents the use of some pesticides, which has a secondary environmental benefit, but the primary motivation for this is to protect the workers’ health. It’s important to be aware that when you see a Fairtrade label on a cotton t-shirt, for example, it will only be the raw material fibre that is certified Fairtrade, not necessarily the whole garment (i.e. not the manufacturing process).

What isn’t Fairtrade?
Fairtrade isn’t a magic label that solves all of the world’s problems. It is a great tool to work towards that goal, but shouldn’t be considered in isolation. When considering ethical/sustainable clothing, you should also consider these factors:
• Is it Organic?
• Is it produced in factories that have good environmental records (eg. do they use renewable energy/minimise their pollution)?
• Are the factory workers protected?

When you buy a Fairtrade product, don’t assume these 3 things are protected too. The Fairtrade label only covers the workers that produce the raw material, although it would be nice to think that it’s probably more likely at least something is being done within the supply chain for these other elements.

What makes clothing “Fairtrade”?
Fairtrade clothing is made from materials that are Fairtrade certified, nearly always this means cotton. However, it doesn’t mean that it contains only 100% Fairtrade cotton, for example many clothing products are made blends such as 80% cotton, 20% polyester. Given that synthetic materials can’t be grown on a Fairtrade certified farm, this means that only the cotton will be Fairtrade.

The Pros
• The Fairtrade brand is one of the most well known ethical labels in the world, so you can be sure it’s genuine.
• Fairtrade clothing is usually of a higher quality (to match the higher price).
• This higher quality often feels and fits better.
• Fairtrade clothing can be useful for businesses to help them be more socially responsible.
• Some environmental benefits from less pesticide use.
• You get a warm fuzzy feeling when you buy it.*

The Cons
• Fairtrade clothing usually costs more (but you might be ok with that).
• Despite its growing demand, the supply is still lacking. You will have to look a bit harder to find Fairtrade clothing.
• Fairtrade isn’t a magic pill; you need to look at other ethical factors too.
• The minimum price for raw materials is often below market values, making it redundant (the farmers will get the market rate if it’s higher).
• You get a warm fuzzy feeling when you buy it.*

*The Warm Fuzzy Feeling
When you buy ethical products, including Fairtrade clothing you get a nice, warm, fuzzy feeling inside, knowing that your purchase has done some good in the world. Except consumer purchasing doesn’t necessarily make a big impact. Sushil Mohan discussed the limited impacts of a single consumer purchase in his book: Fair Trade Without the Froth.

Conclusion
Fairtrade is a great way to improve the imbalance within the global supply chains, by no means is it a magic pill, and it should be considered within the wider group of ethical accreditations. It costs a little more, but if you’re looking for ethical products then this difference probably doesn’t matter to you. Whilst it’s not perfect, it is definitely better than nothing.

About the author
Michael Williams is a writer and marketing professional with a keen interest in sustainability and the environment. This work often sees him writing bids for organisations, particularly assisting with their social value offerings.

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