Bay Area-based nonprofit Fair Trade USA works across a wide range of industries to ensure ethical production of consumer products. The group’s Fair Trade Apparel program, which was established in 2012, grew an astonishing 358% in 2014.
With recent the garment factory tragedies around the world, Fair Trade USA is offering actual solutions for many brands to help address supply chain issues. The group gives garment industry workers a voice, and ensures the safety of laborers and artisans around the world. The company just certified the first Fair Trade factory in the U.S., which is located in Los Angeles.
We recently spoke with Director of Apparel at Fair Trade USA, Maya Spaull, to learn about Fair Trade certification, international factory safety standards, ethically-sources brands and more.
What does Fair Trade USA do?
Essentially what we do is … we are connectors. We work with producers of over 30 product categories — coffee, tea, chocolate, bananas, clothing , home goods, soccer balls, footwear. We basically work with the producers around the world that are making the things that, you know, we consume, and certify that they’re making them in a more responsible and safe way. And then we connect those producers to buyers and companies here to ensure that the products are Fair Trade certified and create benefit to give back to those producers.
So, you know, we’re nonprofit. We don’t buy or sell anything. We basically certify a product and then create a consumer movement. Because we believe the consumers are increasingly conscious about what they’re purchasing, and they want to spend their dollars on things that are beautiful and well-made, but also that are fair and just and really are promoting a better livelihood for everyone who is participating in the creation of those products.
How is Fair Trade Certification different for the fashion and apparel industry?
About five years ago, we started looking at expansion of Fair Trade products, and we were getting a lot of requests for clothing — for products made with Fair Trade cotton, and then more importantly, I think there is a real hunger for some kind of assurance that people are safe in the work place. Particularly with the legacy of sweat shops that we saw come up in the 90’s, you know, the whole Nike campaign. And then these issues kept emerging — Rana Plaza, the fire that just happened in Manila last week in the Philippines …
So, basically we were getting a lot of consumer demand. So basically we went out and we developed the world’s first Fair Trade certified factory program. What that really means tangibly is that a producer of rugs, or of sweaters, or of knits can comply with this audit anywhere in the world. It’s extremely rigorous. It’s 334 compliance points. So what that means is we’re looking at everything; we’re looking at working conditions, gender equality, working hours, fire exits, safety in the workplace, protective equipment with sewing machines of if there’s any type of finishing’s or sprays.
It’s extremely thorough because when we put our label on something we’re guaranteeing that this is a safe, positive, great place to work.
You make it sound so easy. I’m wondering why other brands aren’t doing more to ensure these tragedies, like what happened in Manila, stop occurring.
I think in the category of fashion, there’s an extreme amount of pressure on suppliers. To create products quickly, cheaply, and there’s a lot of outsourcing that happens. So, a brand may say, ‘Okay, I need a million units of these pants.’ And the factory, who doesn’t want to lose the business, will say ‘Okay, yeah, we’ll deliver that. But then rather than sourcing it from the factory that they just promised that they’re manufacturing in, they’ll go to a couple guys down the street who can make the pants too, in order to deliver on the order. But maybe the brands aren’t aware of those factories — or in those factories there could be undocumented workers, bad pay and unsafe conditions.
There’s a lot of outsourcing and I think a lot of it is the pressures of the marketplace.
And then I think, sadly, there’s a lot of brands that don’t have the transparency or don’t really care. And there’s a lot of consumers that don’t really care or don’t know to care because they don’t have an awareness of these issues.
What are some Fair Trade certified apparel and accessories brands that people can shop?
You can see a full list of brands that now offer Fair Trade Certified apparel here.
**This article first appeared on Fashion Times here.