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.
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.