FAIR FASHION

On 11 May we celebrated World Fair Trade Day, and so this month we’re looking a little deeper into Fair Trade and what that means in the context of the fashion industry.  Danni Rochman, Coordinator of Bristol Fair Trade Network, has given us her thoughts…

A revolution in Fair Trade is rising, and this time there’s not a banana in sight. High street fashion—seemingly incompatible with a circular economy, with its short-lived trends, resource-hungry fabrics and ever-shrinking price tags—is beginning to be held to account. The Fair Trade movement is shining one of the brightest lights on the industry.

No one factor can be seen as responsible for this shift; rather a perfect storm of events and realisations has created the momentum for change. The catastrophe that befell Rana Plaza in 2013, claiming 1,134 lives and injuring many thousands more when a garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed, was a deadly wake-up call to the global disregard for garment-workers’ safety.

And the pay-off for working in such conditions? Pitiful. As the concept of a living wage, over and above a minimum wage, has become embedded in the UK, the work of several organisations (such as Fashion Revolution, Labour Behind the Label and Fairtrade Foundation) has been instrumental in raising awareness of the dire situation in clothing supply chains.

For many and varied reasons due to its complexity, workers in the early stages of that supply chain—that is small-scale farmers, textile producers and garment makers—are usually powerless to negotiate better rates for their raw product or for their labour. For example, garment workers in Bangladesh—85% of whom are women—are subject to a legal minimum wage of little over £70 a month, around half what is considered necessary for a comfortable local standard of living.

Our growing understanding of the environmental impacts of our everyday purchases has also reached a critical level in driving change. The mainstreaming of environmental movements, from organic food and farming to climate change protests, is empowering people to demand better from companies on an ever-increasing range of products, which now includes the clothes we wear.

Better practice cannot come soon enough. Take cotton as an example; though favoured as a natural fibre, cotton is the world’s most pesticide-intensive crop, using 16% of all pesticides despite accounting for only 2.5% of agricultural land cover.

The scope of Fair Trade in addressing the many impacts of what has now been coined ‘fast fashion’, makes it one of the most relevant tools in moving towards a more mindful approach to fashion. From small-scale cotton farmers, whose product is protected by a minimum price and whose communities benefit from a premium under Fairtrade standards, to garment workers whose rights to safety, gender equality and fair wages are just some of the aspects covered in Fair Trade supply chains, Fair Trade Organisations are taking a multi-pronged approach to social inequality in fashion. Fair Trade also promotes better environmental practices, empowering farmers to combat the effects of climate change through lower intensity farming methods. A study conducted in 2017 found that cotton produced to Fairtrade standards had a 31% lower impact on the environment than conventional cotton.

No single actor will bring about the change necessary to clean up the clothing industry, not even Fair Trade. Governments and industry in many ways have the biggest responsibility in turning things around. But the role of social and environmental movements, and above all consumers’ willingness to support them, is a powerful thing. Only by choosing Fair Trade where it is already available and demanding more transparency from our high street brands and the global industry behind them can we improve the lives of millions of people involved in the fashion supply chain, from field to factory.

One campaign currently making strides in calling for such transparency is Traidcraft’s Who made my clothes?, in partnership with Fashion Revolution. This campaign acknowledges the power of all actors—consumers, government and industry—in the drive for change by calling on the public to petition for a government-run modern slavery database, which will in turn reveal those brands that are falling behind and force the hand of those that are slow to act. Find out more about the campaign at: https://www.traidcraft.org.uk/who-made-my-clothes.

Danni Rochman is Coordinator of Bristol Fair Trade Network, a citywide network of individuals and organisations supporting and promoting Fair Trade in the city. Find out more and get involved at www.bristolfairtrade.org.uk