Fashion and Fair Trade: 

what you need 

to know

Your guide to sustainability: explore fashion

20 september  '22

Reading time: 6 minutes

When talking about fashion, our attention goes immediately to the environmental footprint. However, working conditions of the employees are equally important to transform the industry for the better. But how can we protect human rights in the fashion industry?

Words by Eszter Gurbicz

In our previous article of the column Your Guide To Sustainability: Explore Fashion, we introduced the various issues linked with fashion’s most common operations, ranging from supply chain practices to fast fashion consequences. It’s now time to take a deep dive into it and start talking about a relevant problem that is happening in these realities: the often bad working conditions of the employees and its link with the concept of fair trade.

Fair Trade: the meaning

Most of you have probably heard about this term, or have even come across goods that were labelled as fair trade products. But what does this really mean, and why should we care?

The term fair trade refers to a movement with the aim to reduce poverty and promote sustainable practices, by ensuring a fair and transparent supply chain. Fair trade ensures that producers from underdeveloped countries are supported and given fair chances and conditions to produce their goods. Therefore, if an item is a fair trade product, we can assume that the workers who helped produce it were granted fair pay, safer working conditions and the production itself was done in a more transparent way.

It’s important to notice the difference between fair trade and Fairtrade. While the first one is a general term indicating a movement of good practices, the second one refers to the name of a specific organisation, Fairtrade International (FI) which certifies products. Indeed, Fair trade is not yet a protected term, which means that it is not officially defined by the government. As a result, the term can be used loosely and it’s often involved in greenwashing. For example, it happens that sometimes products are labelled as fair trade or "fairly traded" without actually being certified by FI, therefore it’s very important to pay attention to these details when shopping.

The current situation

At the moment, fair trade is not the dominant way of trading. Instead, the most widely used policy in our economy is free trade, which operates without tariffs, quotas or other restrictions. Free trade agreements commonly allow big corporations to exploit people, for example by using cheap labour and profiting from it. In fashion, garments are produced cheaply in underdeveloped countries, without paying attention to the working conditions or the environmental impact of the production.

However, free trade is more and more challenged by consumers, who are demanding transparency of the overall supply chain. This shift in consumers’ behaviours bring people to choose ethically sourced products. The 2021 Ethical Consumer Markets Report showed that there is a growing interest in buying and selling fair trade products – for example, the sale of Fairtrade certified items in 2020 has increased by 8% in the UK and at the current moment we can count more than 2000 brands in their global network.

The standards

Making sure that more and more fashion brands are becoming fairly traded is crucial in order to make the industry more sustainable. Fairtrade standards are pretty much the opposite of how fast fashion is produced. Instead of exploiting the workers and the environment, it ensures ethical production and good quality clothing by supporting small working realities and allowing only natural, plastic-free materials.

In order to receive certification and the label of Fairtrade, producers need to meet certain requirements. These include:

- Reducing the gap between actual pay and living wages, increasing the standards of living;

- Promoting long term contracts, by which they enable producers to have a stable income leading to economic growth;

- Paying attention to workers´ rights by making sure that proper safety and health measures are being met;

- Advocating gender equality;

- Protecting the environment by encouraging producers to adapt sustainable production practices and mitigate their impact on climate change;

- Child labour and slavery are banned.

How to recognize Fairtrade labelled products?

Fairtrade International is a network of 1.8 million farmers and workers, and it’s the most recognized and trusted sustainability label in the world. In order to make sure that the product you are buying is truly fairly traded, you should look for its official label.

The Fairtrade Mark is a blue, green and black icon of a person raising an arm, as you can see in the picture. However, there are also other versions of the logo, such as a Fairtrade Mark with an arrow, which means that while what could be sourced under their conditions was done so (at least 20% of the content), the product may also contain uncertified parts or elements. The Fairtrade Sourced Ingredients (FSI) mark features the same logo, but the background is white instead of black. This means that the certified material – for example cotton - is 100% certified and was separated from non-Fairtrade cotton.

We can often find companies that decided to set their own standards and fair trade labels. The issue with such labels is that self-set standards are not reviewed by any independent organisation, which means that their practices couldn’t be as transparent as they claim.

The system is not perfect yet, and fair trade on its own is not enough to solve every issue in the fashion industry. Yet, it is a step forward, and the more we raise awareness of its importance, the more likely it will become a wide-spread phenomenon. Fair trade is not only changing fashion, but is aiming to address sustainability in many areas in the current economic system. That is why it is important for us all to learn about it and consciously look for products which we know are ethically sourced and produced.

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