A Look at Fair Trade in the Wake of Bangladesh

This is part of a series on “The Future of Fair Trade,” written in collaboration with Fair Trade USA. A 501 (c) (3) nonprofit organization, Fair Trade USA is the leading third-party certifier of Fair Trade products in the United States. To follow along with the rest of the series, click here.

Fair Trade factory in India
Fair Trade factory in India

By Jenna Larson

When the Rana Plaza building collapsed leaving more than 1,100 factory workers in its rubble, the world was, for a brief moment, outraged.  Irate consumers took to social media, voicing their concerns and theoretically boycotting any brand associated with the factories. Newspapers were aflame with accusations and testimonials, graphic photos emerged, and a conversation began.

Like so many manufacturing horrors of the past, whether a factory fire in Pakistan, a child labor scandal in Honduras, or deaths in a Chinese electronics factory, that brief moment of shock and outrage so easily gives way to the inevitable takeover of everyday life, and we recharge the very iPhone that moments ago we used to protest its creation.

It’s possible that Rana Plaza could quietly slip into the collective memory of labor abuse and human rights tragedies that we know exist but try desperately to ignore. At the same time, what we absolutely can’t do is let this happen again. Here are a few reasons why we believe (and hope) that the April 24 incident was a critical tipping point for all that came before, and why we can’t (and don’t have to) forget:

The media

Something was different in the trajectory of media coverage in the wake of the tragedy. Though hard to identify at first, that something different was hope. After the initial wave of down-and-dirty disaster coverage, some of the world’s largest and most respected media outlets began to not only look at the problem, but also at potential solutions. They began a dialogue around the challenges and opportunities of ethical apparel, and gave their readers inspiration for action:

The demand

Consumer demand could very well be what drives major apparel brands to explore ethical manufacturing.  We, as consumers, must show them that sourcing from factories with better labor conditions is actually better business.

In a recent study, Harvard researcher Michael J. Hiscox published data showing that consumers paid 45 percent more for shirts labeled “ethically certified” on eBay. In a separate study, he found a 14 percent sales lift on clothing labeled “socially-conscious” in Banana Republic outlet stores.

In a recent radio interview with KPCC, LA’s NPR affiliate, callers made it clear that if Fair Trade and ethically-produced options were available, they would buy them. Generally speaking, people will pay a little bit more to know that their shirt was not produced under Rana Plaza-like conditions.

Fairly traded options line the shelves of supermarkets, offering a wide selection of coffee, tea, chocolate, produce, sugar and other products to shoppers looking to make a difference. So why shouldn’t we also have these options where we shop for clothes? Style and ethics don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

The action

The issue of workers’ rights and worker safety in the apparel industry is a whale of an undertaking. It will require collective action from the entire industry, and, most importantly, commitments from brands and retailers. And we can’t forget the critical work of groups like the Fair Labor Association, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, and the anti-sweatshop movement out there on the front lines. We’re all in it together.

While Fair Trade is, of course, not the only solution, it is one of the first to offer a consumer label– a mechanism to recognize brands on their journey towards ethical production, and a signal to consumers looking for high-quality styles that also support better wages and safe working conditions.

Fair Trade apparel

Fair Trade USA’s apparel program is also the first of its kind to offer certification at two levels of the supply chain—cotton farming and factory production. After a two-year pilot period, Fair Trade USA’s multi-stakeholder advisory group, 18 participating brands and over 17,000 farmers and factory workers learned that Fair Trade makes a real difference and has a role to play in preventing tragedies like what we saw in Bangladesh. Some key learnings include:

  • Workers in certified factories earned 15 percent above local minimum wage on average, and up to double the minimum wage in one facility.
  • Distribution of the Fair Trade premium resulted in tangible change in the local community (e.g. building a school and distributing cash bonuses equivalent to one week’s pay).
  • Impact (as measured by Fair Trade premiums) tripled each year of the program, due to availability of certified products through national channels like REI and Zappos.com.
  • Workers were able to report safety and harassment grievances, with actionable outcomes.

We also learned that brands are rewarded for offering Fair Trade. PrAna, an activewear brand and one of the early pioneers of Fair Trade apparel, has seen success with its Fair Trade program. The company went from one Fair Trade style in 2010, to 13 styles this season. Additionally, “Fair Trade” is one of the most commonly searched terms on its website.

This proven success has led other brands to begin looking into Fair Trade as a feasible way to strengthen supply chains, improve transparency and communicate impact. But the idea of an ethical closet is still a far-off goal, unless shoppers begin to ask more questions about where their clothing was made.

Let’s commit to buy better

Now is the time to acknowledge how much power we, as consumers, have to make a difference. Ask for organic, ask for Fair Trade, ask for sweat-free, ask for the opportunity (and arguably the right) to wear jeans that reflect your values, and also make your butt look good.

We don’t have to forget about Bangladesh, because we can use it to fuel positive change for the future. And there are actually tangible ways to do that now, which makes all the difference in the world. The opportunity to take action, to vote with your dollar for better clothes, is very near.

Jenna Larson is the Communications Manager at Fair Trade USA

Fair Trade USA

One response

  1. The Bangladesh incident was most unfortunate. The local manufacturing units in the third world country are likely to be constantly looking at opportunities to cut costs, many a times with unacceptable trade-offs. While the civil societies thankfully continue to work towards fair trade, the onus must lie with – (1) local governments to set clear working-condition guidelines and a will & system to enforce them, (2) brands to stipulate and demand healthy practices from their suppliers. They must show willingness to compromise on costs, if need be, for the right values. It would be unfortunate if the brands that previously turned a blind eye to shabby practices at their suppliers’ as long as they enjoyed low costs, now decide to shift their sourcing to first-world countries to satisfy customers and fair-trade champions. No work for the workers, would be worse than poor working conditions. The brands and civil society groups should instead work with the suppliers to support them in adopting best-practices.
    Varun, Editor, http://www.csrangle.com

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