Why We Should Be Talking About Fair Trade In Fashion

Two women walking down the street, one is wearing a glittery silver suit, the other is in a blue top...

Above photo: Getty Images

Consuming fashion these days is a rather mindless affair: Enter store, pick something out, try on, purchase, take home. The question of how said clothing got there in the first place usually doesn't even come to mind. In fact many of us are blind to the process of how garments are made—and the sad part is, if we were more informed, we'd often be downright horrified.

Photo: Getty Images

It's widely accepted that fashion is one of the most wasteful industries in the world—it's reported to be the second largest polluter globally (oil nabs the top spot). Workers in the garment trade are known to be grossly underpaid and expected to produce high-volume output in often dismal conditions. The rise of fast fashion is a large part of the problem—these garments are intended to be worn for one season then thrown away and are typically made with cheap textiles that have an incredibly short shelf life.

Fleeting trends hit us from all angles, only to be replaced by something newer and shinier months later—as such, clothes are discarded at lightning speed. It's a vicious cycle, one that (for the record) we all perpetuate in different ways. The purpose of this piece isn't to make you feel overwhelmed with guilt for purchasing that $20 going-out top—but rather to shed light on the realities of the industry, so we all understand what kind of impact we have when we swipe our credit cards.

Many companies have emerged in recent years with a sustainable, conscious ethos at the core of their business. Reformation, a cult favorite among coastal fashion girls, employs energy-efficient practices and uses recycled materials for its unique trend-forward-meets-vintage aesthetic. Ralph Lauren recently announced its policy to sustainably source wood-based fabrics like viscose and rayon "in an effort to eliminate sources connected to the destruction of the rainforest and the violation of human rights," according to a press release from the brand. Even H&M has its Conscious Collection, a product of the retailer's commitment to "work intensely to increase the share of sustainably sourced fabrics and materials in our clothes," according to its 2015 Sustainability Report. These efforts all relate largely to improving supply chains and waste management, which certainly contributes to the greater good of the environment.

One brand that's making a splash in a way that focuses more on the garment workers themselves is Patagonia, which emphasizes fair-trade product. The term fair trade is not one that's thrown around frequently in fashion—many associate it with perishable goods like coffee and chocolate. And while we may generally grasp that it pertains to the ethical sourcing and production of goods, many of us don't have an earnest understanding of it.

A fair-trade certification indicates that a portion of a product's price directly benefits those who make it. Brands pay a premium on each item produced, and that money goes into a fund controlled by workers, who decide (via a democratically elected committee) how it's allocated, whether in the form of a cash bonus or a contribution to a community program like a child-care center. The goal is to improve the community's standard of living and foster a proper, livable wage (garment workers have long been one of the lowest income-earners across all industries).

Some may question why factory workers don't always opt for the cash bonus—but one mustn't forget the conditions they're subject to. Some communities lack basic economic, social and environmental necessities. Things like uniforms, undergarments, helmets and bike racks are essentials that help these men and women get to work and safely go about their day. Funds for these tools (which, again, the workers themselves vote on) help systematically improve the community.

Patagonia created a short film to help emphasize the impact of its fair-trade program, and it's quite eye-opening. Considering the real human impact of the fashion industry puts things in perspective—one that makes you reconsider if you really need that inexpensive dress you'll wear once.

So how can consumers find more information on ethically produced goods? Unfortunately, it's not as easy as it should be. "There is no one website where you can get this information," notes Patagonia's Social and Environmental Responsibility Manager Thuy Nguyen. "Much of it is confidential. It's confidential because it's owned by the factory, and [outside companies who contract with them] can't disclose the ins and outs. As a consumer, it's on you." (Fair Trade USA's website does provide a landing page of apparel and home goods brands that officially partner with the program.)

Of course, this lack of transparency proves inconvenient for consumers—and it's something we hope to see change as the marketplace demands higher standards. Ways to incite change on an individual level include supporting companies like Patagonia that already have a social responsibility program in place, as well as holding companies accountable by contacting them for more information on their core values and where and how they source.

"In addition to purchasing products that are fair-trade certified, one of the best things consumers can do to support ethical manufacturing is spread the word—engage with your favorite brands and ask them where their products are made and about the working conditions in those factories," says Thuy. "Ask them how they ensure workers are treated fairly and have a safe working environment, learn about their mission statement and supplier code of conduct, and let them know that programs like fair trade are important to you. Take those learnings and share them with your friends and family and inspire them to get involved. Most companies won't change their business practices until they see a consumer demand, so make your voice heard and use your purchasing power to stand up for the values you support."

Which fashion brands do you support that abide by ethical and sustainable practices? Tell us in the comments below.