A few posts ago I mentioned that there are many different products that can be Fair Trade. So far we have discussed coffee and chocolate. Now I want to talk about something that I personally had never thought about prior to one year ago. In fact I prided myself, as many of you probably do too, on what great deals I could get and how much I could find on sale. So when I read that cotton was listed as a Fair Trade product on Fair Trade USA I thought, huh? Oh, yeah, cotton is picked and it seems like anything that is picked can be Fair Trade.
What’s all the fluff about cotton, you say? (I know, that was bad). Well, often developing countries are the top producing countries of cotton. China and India being the top 2 (US coming in 3rd). And just like with cocoa beans, cotton must be picked.
Often the cotton in these countries is sold at extremely low prices. These countries cannot compete with the prices that developed countries can sell it for. The top 3 cotton exporters are the US, Africa, and Uzbekistan. So, if the US is the #1 exporter of cotton why is it so difficult to find any clothes that are actually made in the USA? Out of curiosity I started to fold a basket of the boys laundry, and not one article of clothing said “made in the USA”. About the same time we were putting together shoe boxes for Operation Christmas Child. These shoe boxes are sent to children around the world that wouldn’t otherwise get anything for Christmas. We wanted to send an article of clothing in each box and could not find anything “made in the USA” at Meijer. Not one thing! Well, even though the US makes plenty of cotton most retailers out source their clothing to be made in other countries, not surprisingly, because it is cheaper. But often, cheaper equals abusive working conditions wrapped in oppression. Whether it is forcibly employing children instead of sending them to school, or women falling asleep at their sewing machines because they are forced to work 16 hour days, often there are no workers rights or regulations ensuring that these people are treated as human beings.
The more I have looked into this problem the more determined I become to no longer purchase clothing that is not fair trade. The apparel industry has not made the strides that the coffee industry has however, and the supply chain is convoluted and often more difficult to follow up on to ensure workers’ rights. Also, most fair trade stores are on-line which is not ideal when you want to try something on. So an alternative is to use the Free 2 Work app. This is an app that is free to download and use. It lists many of the industries that are fair trade and assigns a grade from A-F to brands within that industry. So, when we went to Kohl’s last weekend to use a giftcard, we took our ipod and looked up brands to see what grade they got. The ratings are based on four categories: policies, transparency & traceability, monitoring & training, and workers’ rights. It is not a comprehensive list, but at least you can make a more informed decision about that brands commitment or lack of toward ethically made apparel. For example, when you need to buy new socks or underwear, choose Hanes (A-) instead of Fruit of the Loom (D). When you are at the mall shopping for new jeans choose Levi’s (B) instead of Express (D). And for those of us shopping for kid’s clothes (this was really shocking!), think twice before you purchase that great deal on Carter’s, Child of Mine, or OshKosh (all get a D-). There is a reason you are getting such a great deal. It is costing someone! A great alternative to the more expensive Fair Trade online stores or the low ratings of the previous brands is second-hand clothes! There is no higher score than second-hand– always an A+!
That sounds like a lot of work you might be thinking. And you are right. Shopping Fair Trade, whether for coffee, chocolate, or clothing does take some extra time and thought. But I am motivated to do it. Otherwise, we may care about the poor and even give to great causes on one hand, and with the other be contributing to the oppressive systems that are keeping them in poverty. Will we do it perfectly? No, but I believe our purchases really can make a difference. As long as consumers only care about what the price tag says businesses and brands can continue to use supply chains that rob people of respect and a descent life. I don’t want to wear something that plays a part in that!