‘Fair Trade’ Becomes a Fashion Trend

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By Andria Cheng

Under the Canopy, a fashion and home brand, sells some Fair Trade Certified items at Bed Bath & Beyond. Photo: Michael Nagle/Bloomberg News
Under the Canopy, a fashion and home brand, sells some Fair Trade Certified items at Bed Bath & Beyond. Photo: Michael Nagle/Bloomberg News

Fair Trade coffee and chocolate have become commonplace. Get ready for Fair Trade fashion and décor.

Two years after a garment-factory collapse in Bangladesh killed more than 1,100 people and put a harsh spotlight on fashion-industry working conditions, Fair Trade apparel is gaining ground.

The volume of apparel and home goods sold as Fair Trade Certified has grown rapidly in the past two years, according to the nonprofit certification group Fair Trade USA, which in 2012 introduced more than 334 compliance criteria for textile factories.

Fair Trade USA’s apparel certification now appears on 20 brands, up from just a handful before the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh. Patagonia, Williams-Sonoma Inc. ’s West Elm unit and Bed Bath & Beyond Inc. are among retailers that began selling Fair Trade Certified apparel or home furnishings in the past two years, according to Fair Trade USA.

The number of factories certified by Fair Trade USA is expected to increase to at least 25, in countries from India to Colombia, by the end of 2015, up from fewer than five in 2012.

A range of factors are measured by the group before a factory is labeled Fair Trade Certified—which is a trademarked designation. Those include a factory’s environmental impact, its overall working conditions and the rights afforded workers. As a baseline, workers must be guaranteed local minimum wages. Brands also are required to make additional payments—based on how much they buy from factories—directly to workers in what’s called a Fair Trade Premium.

The total cost to the brands, including third-party factory auditing, worker training and the Fair Trade Premium, is, on average, about 1% to 5% of what brands pay to factories, said Maya Spaull, director of Fair Trade USA’s apparel and home goods category.

Fair Trade USA, according to a West Elm representative, is the only group certifying production facilities for home and apparel manufacturers involved in large-scale production. “Traditionally, certification has been limited to raw materials or outputs,” said West Elm spokeswoman Abigail Jacobs.

Fair Trade USA—founded in 1998 to certify coffee production—now certifies in 30 categories, ranging from furnishings to flowers to spices to lip balms, as well as clothing.

Certified ethical apparel and home goods “need to be available to a wider mass-market audience” to “effect true positive change,” just as organic food choices have gone mainstream, said Marci Zaroff, founder and CEO of Under the Canopy, a fashion brand that works with Fair Trade USA.

Under the Canopy’s Fair Trade Certified line of bedding, introduced for back-to-school season at Bed Bath & Beyond last year, sold out immediately, according to Ms. Zaroff. “Millennials are seeking authenticity and transparency,” she said. They are the ones “driving the rapidly growing movement for sustainable and ethical fashion.”

Under the Canopy has added more Fair Trade collections at Bed Bath & Beyond, including lines of organic cotton kimono robes and throws, which it also sells through and

West Elm is expanding the six Fair Trade Certified rug offerings introduced during the 2014 holiday season to 30 rug lines and 13 textile collections this fall, said Ms. Jacobs, adding that the broadening of its certified offerings “speaks to the customer’s interest” and “commitment to consciousness.”

Whole Foods Market Inc. began carrying Fair Trade Certified T-shirts made by Pact Apparel in the spring of 2014. The shirts, which cost $15, are one of Whole Foods’ best-selling basic apparel lines, the company said.

At yoga and outdoor-apparel brand Prana, which was acquired by Columbia Sportswear last year, the single Fair Trade Certified T-shirt introduced in 2010 led the way to nearly 100 items, including dresses, skirts and men’s shirts, said Nicole Bassett, the brand’s director of sustainability. In fact, Fair Trade products now represent about 15% of the overall assortment at Prana, which has approached some existing suppliers to help them get certified, Ms. Bassett said.

**This article first appeared on The Wall Street Journal here.

Fair Trade USA Successfully Working With Brands To Ensure Ethical Apparel Production

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(Photo : Courtesy Fair Trade USA ) Mamta Jamri, 30-year-old tailor at Pratibha Syntex, is working at a Fair Trade Certified garment factory in India. "I have worked here for 4 years and the workplace is so much better than before. I'm happy to contribute to the quality we produce here," she said, according to Fair Trade USA.
(Photo : Courtesy Fair Trade USA ) Mamta Jamri, 30-year-old tailor at Pratibha Syntex, is working at a Fair Trade Certified garment factory in India. “I have worked here for 4 years and the workplace is so much better than before. I’m happy to contribute to the quality we produce here,” she said, according to Fair Trade USA.

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?

Patagonia, West Elm, PrAna, PACT and Oliberte, which are the world’s first Fair Trade Certified shoes.

You can see a full list of brands that now offer Fair Trade Certified apparel here.

**This article first appeared on Fashion Times here.