I am a strong believer in the fair trade business model. The notion that producers, especially those in developing countries, should be paid a fair price for their labor and expertise seems both obvious and necessary. By manufacturing and exporting products that are designed and made traditionally, fair trade suppliers are empowered to profit from their skills. LOHAS consumers in Europe and America love buying fair trade products, because it makes them feel good about their purchasing power.
There is, however, a fatal flaw in the fair trade model, as far as clothing and accessories are concerned. Producers in the developing world certainly possess the manufacturing expertise to be able to produce handmade, culturally-authentic items. They do not always know, however, what westerners want design-wise. Too many fair trade items look like a souvenir purchased on vacation: interesting and unique, but not necessarily the right fit or style to wear back home.
Two years ago, the Ethical Fashion Forum held the Design4Life contest to solve this fatal flaw in the fair trade model. They challenged young British designers to create a batik dress that would appeal to the fashionable London masses. The contest winner would have their dress manufactured by an all-female fair trade cooperative in Ghana called Global Mamas. The dresses would then be sold by the coolest place in London: Top Shop. The winners of the contest were two young English ladies named Annagret Affolderbach and Julia Smith. They created some simple cotton sundresses, crafted from fair trade Ghanaian cotton. The fabric is pure Africa, the design undeniably Europe. The dresses flew out of Top Shop within days of their arrival.
In order to fulfill their mission to sell more ethical products, Top Shop has re-introduced the line of original dresses, and is enjoying some excellent revenues. Annagret has established her own fashion start-up called Choolips, with additional designs manufactured by Global Mamas coming soon at Top Shop.
This collaboration between western designers and southern producers could possibly be the future of fair trade.