Is there Fair Trade Clothing for a Conscientious Coffee Drinker?

Conscientious coffee drinkers know to seek Fair Trade, organic, shade-grown beans for their morning buzz. But as important as coffee is to the world economy and to its millions of devotees, its just one of the many things we buy. What does an enlightened fair trade coffee drinker don when its time to pull on something as simple as a t-shirt?

Fair Trade began in the 1940s when a number of religious groups like SERRV International and Ten Thousand Villages started marketing hand-crafted goods from economically impoverished artisans in less industrialized countries in the global south. Other early fair traders created direct trading relations between Northern marketers and small Southern artisans as part of a larger political movement aimed at countering corporate-lead capitalist imperialism.

Eventually, fair traders, or “alternative traders” as they were also known, realized that commodity goods like coffee could be powerful levers in rebalancing the global trade machine since agricultural goods generate the most cash income for millions of the world’s poor. Today, a sophisticated global system is in place for verifying “fair” trading relationships between peasant farmers and the northern customers who consume the goods they grow. Just look for Fair Trade Certified coffee, tea, cocoa, bananas, wine or any of a number of other commodity food goods.

But the global apparel industry has yet to catch up. Worker exploitation still runs rampant throughout the world’s many sweatshop apparel factories. So where does a conscientious coffee drinker turn when its time to buy some threads (besides the thrift store)?

A handful of “sweatfree” clothing producers have been working to perfect a fair trade model for working with garment workers. Five years ago Maggie’s Organics helped a group of women in Nicaragua build their own factory called The Fair Trade Zone. They documented the story in a brief video called Ants that Move Mountains. If the tale of how these women overcame the destruction of Hurricane Mitch and built their own factory doesn’t make you want to go out and buy their camisoles, you must be a nudist.

A new business on the block is called Counter Sourcing. Company owner Joe Falcone recently contacted me to share news about their success converting the University of Wisconsin campus to cotton tees delivered through their fair trade channels. Here’s the model they use for equitable distribution of the profits made from the t-shirt trade.

Pie chart

An essential link that remains missing in the apparel trade is certification – who is verifying the claims made by companies like Maggie’s and Counter Sourcing? Personally, I have confidence in Maggie’s Organics since I’m friends with the owner and know her commitment runs deep at a personal level. Likewise, Counter Sourcing appears to be on the level; the founder has a long list of credentials from the garment worker justice movement, and I have social links to him too through a mutual friend that introduced us. These kind of social links are important in establishing credibility. But trusting a personal friend who runs a business is different from trusting an unknown company who makes a fair trade claim in a hang-tag without having any verification to back it up. Should the average consumer trust these company claims?

So the good news is that fair trade or “sweatfree” apparel is inching its way into the marketplace. Maggie’s and Counter Sourcing are just two examples of a growing cadre of conscientious clothiers; check out Co-op America’s National Green Pages for a directory of many more.

These small companies are a great start. They are blazing the fair trade trail for others to follow. In fact, Counter Sourcing even claims to be in dialogue with TransFair USA about creating a Fair Trade certification standard for clothing. That needs to happen, whether its with TransFair or another group, in order for this small movement to move beyond being a niche and become a viable strategy for replacing the conventional trade system – one that relies on widespread worker abuse and exploitation. For an example of how this leads to success, look at the growth the organic food movement has experienced as a result of the nationalization of standards with the USDA National Organic Program – organic has been the fastest growing segment of the grocery industry ever since the standards went into effect ten years ago. Its time for that to happen with fair trade clothing.

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7 Responses to Is there Fair Trade Clothing for a Conscientious Coffee Drinker?

  1. yochizakai says:

    Chris, Chris – Awesome blog, best of luck with the book. Co-op America is putting together a new Guide to Ending Sweatshops and we’re going to try to profile some good companies like Maggie’s and Counter Sourcing. Let me know if you find any more trailblazing examples like this company! -Yochi

  2. beeractivist says:

    Yochisakai,

    Thanks for stopping by. Not sure if you know but I actually worked at Co-op America for a long time, and even managed the Fair Trade Federation while I was there. If I see any more new businesses I’ll try to pass them your way but I suspect you’re more on top of it than I am. Best wishes with the new Guide.

    Cheers,
    Chris O’Brien

  3. Michael says:

    Chris:

    Cheers and thanks for the blog post. Great stuff. You ask above about verification of FT claims in the garment sector…For my money, some of the most exciting traceability activity is taking place outside formal verification structures. Like so much else in the FT/sustainability world, coffee is providing some of the best early examples.

    The good folks at Cooperative Coffees (coopcoffees.com) are getting ready to roll out an online traceability system that lets consumers track their beans from their cup back to the coop where they were sourced and see the terms of every transaction in between. (Getting down to the farm level is next, of course.) Check out the “Proof Trail” at larrysbeans.com for a stylized and less detailed preview.

    These initiatives are totally disintermediated–no verification agency necessary–and actually provide more transparency than TFUSA while opening up the possibility for returning more of the retail value of the product to the actual producers.

    Garments are an order of magnitude more complicated than coffee, of course, given all the processing and outsourcing and subcontracting and piecework, etc. There are of course garments made with FT Certified cotton, but no really viable system to validate all the many steps between the cotton fields and your wardrobe. See TFUSA and FLO sites for feasibility studies on FT Certification for garments. It is a nightmare.

    Meantime, I think the best examples are the “small but beautiful ones” like Maggie’s. They may not move the needle on global trade data, but they are incubators for sustainable practices that will be adopted in some form by bigger players. And of course these small and beautiful relationships are even stronger when they don’t ask you to take their word for it, but get creative with traceability.

    Carry on!

  4. beeractivist says:

    Michael,

    Good to hear from you and glad to see you’re reading our new blog! (by the way I was in State College last weekend for T-Day – too bad I didn’t run into you in the grocery store again!)

    I love the Cooperative Coffees scheme, for what it is: transparency in the chain of supply. It sets a new bar for corporate accountability.

    However, in my estimation this compliments rather than replaces certification. I realize you weren’t suggesting otherwise, but I’m just following the thought process out a little.

    Can we expect consumers to visiting a website and personally verify contract terms every time they want to buy some coffee off a store shelf? I don’t think so. Will a small cadre of active supporters go to that effort once or twice and thereby lend credibility to those brands? Yes, probably. And that can provide momentum toward raising expectations of corporate behavior in general.

    But the vast majority of coffee is sold to customers who simply want to get in and out of the store as fast as possible with a product that generally meets their expectations of cost and quality (in that order). If they are able to quickly identify that the product has a desirable social or environmental benefit, then so much the better and that might tip their purchase to one bag over another when all other things are equal and the marketing is well done.

    The only model that I’ve seen so far to comes any where close to working on a large mainstream scale is certification labels. The logo is identifiable at the point of purchase and is increasingly recognizable across a variety of product categories. Ultimately, I’m not convinced that even the labeling strategy will move the entire marketplace without policy change prompting it.

    For the few who are interested enough to question an eco/fair trade label, the Coop Coffees system would allow them to drill down to a level of detail that should satisfy even the most cynical consumer – that’s ground breaking and highly commendable. It’s always the little guys that provide real innovation. But the label still needs to be there as a service to the vast majority of customer who will never be interested in the details and just want to know “this is a better product than that one cause it’s got a little “green” “fair trade” “fill in the blank” certification logo that says so.

    In short, the contract transparency model is an excellent model for corporate responsibility in the supply chain – as an _addition_ to the certification labeling that allows customers to differentiate better products in the first place.

    Looking forward to more dialog like this Michael. Hope the we can keep you interested in the blog!

    Cheers,
    Chris O’

  5. Ryan says:

    Glad to see that there are other folks out there interested in and thinking about fair trade apparel. One small-scale option that’s worth a look is Just Apparel (http://www.justapparel.org). It’s a fair trade apparel project (in the certification process with the Fair Trade Federation) of a US non-profit that works directly with producers in a small town in Guatemala. They specialize in embroidered and customized t-shirt, polos, sweatshirts, and tote bags. (Full disclosure – I’m pretty closely involved in Just Apparel, but that doesn’t make it any worse of an option for fair trade apparel!)

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