Three German clothing brands have become the first companies to sign up to the new Fairtrade Textile Standard launched earlier this year.

The companies – 3Freunde, Shirts for Life and Melawear – have been praised by Dieter Overath, CEO of  Fairtrade Germany, for their "courageous commitment" to driving change in the textile industry.

He adds: "These first partners take on an important pioneering role and serve as role models."

The FairtradeTextile Standard launched in March focuses on improving working conditions, wages and workers' rights in the textile and clothing supply chain. It is the first standard in the industry to require living wages to be paid within a six-year time frame.

Once a product's entire supply chain has been certified in line with the new standard, it would then eligible to carry the Fairtrade Textile Production Mark label.

"Wages have to be increased gradually. The living wage level has to be achieved within six years," Overath explains. "Communication on the final product will be very clear on where a company stands in this process."

In addition to the requirements for textile factories, the standard also includes requirements for brands, who must commit to fair and long-term sourcing practices in their contracts in order to make wage increases feasible.

At its launch, however, this approach was criticised for pushing costs and responsibility onto suppliers, along with concerns that garment workers will not benefit from a product label approach based on audits.

Fairtrade hits back at criticism of new textile standard

Factories participating in the Fairtrade Textile Programme will receive on-site support by local experts and Fairtrade producer networks to meet the standard's requirements.

"We want the factory management and workers to understand the requirements, and the reasoning behind them," adds Raju Ganapathi, head of standards and pricing, textiles and producer services at the producer network NAPP in India.

"Therefore we offer training on environmental management, health and safety, and freedom of association. The development levels of the factories differ widely. So it is important to tailor our support to their individual needs."

Flocert, the independent certification body for Fairtrade, will audit the textile companies.

Of the first three partners, 3Freunde produces T-shirts made from Fairtrade cotton and, according to its founder Stefan Niethammer, wants to "take the next step and go from certifying our raw materials to also certifying our supply chains against Fairtrade Standards. The company is a shareholder in a factory in India where it will start implementing the Textile Standard requirements.

Melawear, another long-term Fairtrade cotton partner, is planning to implement the Textile Programme and has already conducted a first assessment of a production site in India.

"The detected issues mostly relate to wages, participation and contract workers," says director Henning Siedentopp. "Our first goals are to create the necessary framework for easier participation, the incremental rise of wages and the improvement of the precarious employment conditions for contract workers."

Like Melawear, the brand Shirts for Life is already a member of the Partnership for Sustainable Textiles run by the German Development Ministry.

"The Partnership for Sustainable Textiles is a great idea, since it gathers various stakeholders around a table", states Dr Ulrich Hofmann, founder of Shirts for Life, "but the Fairtrade Programme is a hands-on tool for improvements on the ground, which is highly important to us. We aim to contribute to a change of consumers' awareness."