A worker at Nature USA, the first Fair Trade Certified factory in the US, prepares fabric for sewing

A worker at Nature USA, the first Fair Trade Certified factory in the US, prepares fabric for sewing

A fire that broke out at a factory in Bangladesh last month, and the impending third year anniversary of Rana Plaza, serves as a reminder that major safety concerns still exist for workers in the global apparel industry. But the proliferation of organisations working to offer tangible solutions proves that work is in progress, one of those being Fair Trade USA, whose apparel programme grew 358% in 2014. 

"The fashion industry has a long and infamous history of human rights abuse, one that began far before the rise of what we now call fast fashion," says Maya Spaull, director of new category innovation for Fair Trade USA. "What fast fashion did was escalate and intensify an already imbalanced system, putting more and more pressure on the people who retain the least value in production – the workers. It created more demand for cheap and disposable labour overseas, leading to lax safety regulations, limited enforcement and, by default, an increase in tragedies."

Spaull adds: "The scariest part about the current state is that there is always somewhere cheaper to make clothes – production is always shifting. When more regulations are imposed on one country, another country will open its doors for the business at an even lower cost."

Like many other organisations and certification schemes such as the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), Fair Trade USA has been working to help ensure safe, healthy working conditions for employees, and to ensure they are guaranteed a local minimum wage. This is through its Fair Trade Certified Apparel and Home Goods Program, which launched in 2010 as a two-year pilot.

It started out with a handful of mission-driven brands like Columbia Sportswear's prAna label, sourcing from less than five factories and supporting a few hundred workers, and has since grown to around 25 companies, including outdoor wear giant Patagonia, offering Fair Trade Certified cotton and factory-made products. 

At present, around 20,000 workers benefit from Fair Trade certification in India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Ethiopia, Kenya and the US. By the end of the year, Spaull says there will be newly-certified factories in parts of Central and South America, in addition to new regions in Southeast Asia.

Factors taken into account for the certification include working hours, equal rights for men and women, workplace safety, grievance policies, and paid leave. Spaull says it is also about worker empowerment, democratic participation, and financial benefit for workers – an additional amount of money earned by workers for every Fair Trade product sold. Premiums can be taken as a cash bonus, or be spent on social and community-focused initiatives of the workers' choice, such as health care or financial education. The cost to the brands, on average, is around 1% to 5% of what they pay to factories. 

Brand indifference

The challenge, however, is the indifference of the vast majority of brands in the apparel space. Indeed, Fair Trade production is small relative to the total production of the industry as a whole, and progress is slowed by the consumer perception of such goods as being less fashionable and pricier, Spaull says.

Nonetheless, she is confident Fair Trade has proven to be a meaningful tool in supporting sustainable livelihoods for workers. 

"It's all those doing nothing to improve standards and shift practices that pose the biggest risk to the future."

But Spaull is aware that there is much work still to be done in educating consumers and telling the story of a clothing item and its origins if the industry is to effect real change. 

"We're seeing a rising demand for ethical products, especially among the younger generations, but there is still a long way to go to take responsible shopping from niche to norm. We are proud to say that 59% of the US population is aware of the Fair Trade Certified label – a very good sign.

"But price will absolutely remain an issue until people can understand the true cost of our clothing. We want the hottest trends for the least amount of money, but we rarely think about what it means for a shirt to be five dollars – there's no way that price supported a fair wage for the person who made it. We need to become a culture of fewer and better things before we'll see a major shift."

Effecting change

And getting more major brands on board will be key to spreading this message. At present, brands signed up to Fair Trade include upscale retailer West Elm, Pact Organic Apparel, Threads for Thought, and Under the Canopy. Since Rana Plaza, Spaull says the programme has grown by 358%; the tragedy serving as "a wake up call to the industry".

"The need for social compliance programmes such as Fair Trade became a core element of conducting business. This year, we will be continuing to help our existing partners grow their Fair Trade commitment and also begin working with additional big name brands."

However, the uptake from more major apparel brands appears minimal. Spaull explains that for larger brands, there are often more factors to consider, such as: where can they make the most meaningful impact across vast supply chains? Where is the brand on its sustainability journey? Is Fair Trade a natural next step, or do they have farther to go? Are they able to source from an existing Fair Trade facility, or do we need to look at certifying new factories and working in new regions?

For Patagonia, a company striving to build the world's most socially and environmentally responsible supply chain, it has embraced Fair Trade certification and launched with 11 Fair Trade women's products in 2014. It now offers more than 250 items across its apparel portfolio. West Elm also recently made a commitment to certify 40% of its portfolio by 2020.

But as well as getting more brands on board and "spreading the Fair Trade message", Spaull believes two important things need to happen in the industry to ensure its future success in terms of sustainability and ethics.  

Firstly, a better understanding of the challenges. She explains: "For example, we need to know more about what a living wage really means in places where products are made. Right now there is no universal understanding of living wage, making it very difficult for the industry to raise the bar together. We're starting to see collaborative initiatives around this, like the Global Living Wage Coalition."

Secondly, Spaull says that implementing "realistic and meaningful solutions" will be key to addressing those challenges.

"This is where programmes like Fair Trade come in. But of course, Fair Trade is not a panacea and cannot solve all problems in the industry alone. That's why collaboration – between consumers, brands, NGOs, governments – is absolutely key for long-term, sustainable change."

Indeed, collaboration, Spaull suggests, could help streamline the number of audits and certifications that have flooded the industry to help avoid confusion and duplication.

But she adds: "Ultimately, when you look at the entire spectrum of manufacturing, organisations like Fair Trade USA and the BCI are a small slice of the pie – the biggest obstacle is the sheer immensity of all those companies and brands doing nothing."

Currently, the highest level of Fair Trade activity for the apparel programme is in India and Sri Lanka; both countries that manufacture and export large volumes of apparel to the US. The hope, as Spaull says, is to widen that net, but she admits that the challenges they face are "immense and deeply intractable."

"Lasting and meaningful change will take time, and will require the full-fledged support of brands, retailers and consumers. 

"Though the pace is slow, I'm heartened by the shifting attitudes of consumers and the rise of brands, large and small, committing to more responsible sourcing. The dialogue is shifting, we're seeing social movements like Fashion Revolution Day popping up on the anniversary of the Rana Plaza tragedy, and people are demanding greater transparency. It may not happen overnight, but progress is happening every single day."