Monday, March 31, 2008

Fair Trade Fashion?

I intended to write a post about fair trade or ethically produced clothes, particularly seeing as how it was Fair Trade fortnight for the first two weeks of March. This event has been happening for a good few years now, and is helping to make more people aware of ethical issues in the global economy.

I'm constantly surprised by how many people, even those involved or interested in global issues, are not aware of fair trade. I was once at a weekend development workshop, where each group had to make a short presentation about the concept, after it had been explained by a visiting speaker, and one group both wrote and said 'free trade' repeatedly, not seeming to notice the difference. And fair trade is very different from what is blithely, but without apparent irony, referred to as 'free' trade. As if a 'free' market actually exists, in the world, where real people trade real goods. Or even exists virtually. That's another discussion however.

As I once read somewhere (probably on a placard), Free Trade My Ass, Someone Pays.

Essentially fair trade is a form of trade where producers, usually in majority world countries i.e. what are often termed 'developing' or, even more dubiously, 'Third World' countries, are guaranteed a fair price for their goods, plus a fair trade premium, which usually goes towards community projects, and also allows them to have some continuity and plan for the future, as prices or contracts are often guaranteed for more than one season or one year.

There are a number of other features to this trading system, relating to ethical production of goods, fair treatment of workers, the right to unionize and collective bargaining, lack of discrimination, which producers have to meet to earn the Fair Trade mark. This has been around for a long time and is an alternative to supposedly 'free' trade goods, which do not guarantee any of these things.

In the past fair trade goods were mainly tea, coffee, chocolate and sugar, items where the primary or sole ingredient is grown in majority world countries, but there are now thousands of fair trade products available all over the world, including foods of many kinds, toys, gifts, household goods, footballs and clothes. Lately I noticed a couple of shops proudly advertising their fair trade and organic cotton clothing. Like this one:

Yet I was surprised that this is a UK chain store, Topshop. Overall awareness in the UK seems to be ahead of Ireland, in terms of these kind of issues and certainly in terms of climate change. In Ireland, Oxfam and Amnesty shops at least have stocked a small range of fair trade clothes for a long time.

Around the corner was another advert, this time from Marks and Spencer. M&S has its problems but is definitely doing a good bit about climate change in particular.

Meanwhile are the Irish shops doing anything? I did recently see this t-shirt in Penney's, which I think is still Irish owned. It's also organic cotton but not fair trade. This t-shirt was 3 euro, reduced from 9 euro. It's presumably impossible for the producers to be paid any kind of decent amount if the clothes are retailing that cheaply in Ireland, which is a major problem.

Overall I'm glad to see these large chain stores switching even some of their products to fair trade and to organic cotton, cotton being one of the most chemically saturated crops when grown in the usual way.

Although I don't think these large shops and supermarkets are the solution, at least it's better if they are using fair trade and organic cotton than not doing so, as long as the shops exist. They also have extremely strong buying power, which can influence a whole industry. And they set trends which can further influence other retailers. And finally, by engaging with the fair trade movement, they reach an audience of people who might otherwise never encounter even the concept of fair trade.


Blogger Felix said...

Very refreshing to read this, especially after becoming aware of the issues involved with cotton production in Uzbekistan where the life expectancy is 44 due to the cancerous pesticides associated with cotton production and where the arral sea has been utterly drained through cotton crop irrigation.

It's good to read about some alternatives that aren't as socially and environmentally expensive.

Sunday, 20 April 2008 at 18:59:00 GMT+1  

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