This week I met with Tierra Forte of TransFair USA, to discuss the new apparel certification pilot program they’re developing to extend fair trade benefits and protections beyond just the farm, but also for factory workers. I am very excited about this, as one of the main reasons I chose to pursue an MBA in Sustainability was to find a way to help improve labor conditions for apparel industry workers. Having worked in the US apparel industry for over a decade, I’ve witnessed the shift from domestic to foreign to predominantly Chinese manufacturing, and all of the benefits and difficulties that encompassed.
67% of American Consumers Don’t Know Fair Trade
The United States represents 30% of the fair trade market, even though only 33% of American consumers know what “fair trade” means. Have you explained it to your friends and family yet? I didn’t even know how environmentally rigorous the certification is until I dug into TransFair’s website. TransFair teaches and empowers producers to become stewards of their environment, so that Fair Trade Certified products are also environmentally responsible. For example, with apparel, they only approve factories which already meet the legal environmental standards. This is a big deal in countries where many textile mills dump toxic waste into the water supply as part of the dyeing and finishing processes. 58% of TransFair’s commodity products are also certified organic, and this is increasing.
Clothing- Slightly More Complicated Than Coffee
Most people do not realize the amount of time and effort it takes to develop and manufacture a garment, and therefore undervalue clothing. Apparel uses a very complex supply chain which involves a broad range of suppliers. The Fairtrade Labeling Organization (FLO) audits and validates the reports of the cotton farmers and mid-chain processors such as textile mills, while TransFair does the same for apparel manufacturers and licensees.
TransFair has until now only certified commodities (coffee, sugar, grains, etc.), guaranteeing a minimum price to farmers that covers the cost of production. However, clothing is not that simple. Something as ubiquitous as a white t-shirt comes in a wide range of qualities and therefore prices. So fair trade apparel workers are paid a social premium on top of the price their factory charges the client. This premium is on a sliding scale based on how well the workers are paid. If they are being paid minimum wage, the premium is 10% of FOB, and if they’re being paid a living wage the premium is 1% of FOB. This encourages factories to pay a living wage, but what’s cool about the premium being separate from wages is that the workers vote on how to spend it. They can opt to use it to build a school for their children, or to each pocket the money to support their families in other ways.
Where the Fair Trade Premium truly adds value is in the voice it gives to workers. Because apparel sewing is relatively easy to learn, it is often the first step for workers to move from an agrarian economy into a manufacturing economy. This low barrier to entry coupled with the fact that even very low wages are an improvement over no income have made it easy for manufacturers to find workers willing to tolerate low pay and poor working conditions.
While the International Labor Organization and many manufacturers set rules and conduct audits, these only encourage compliance, and the industry’s culture has not changed significantly. TransFair’s Worker Participation and Grievance Procedure emphasizes a better grievance process and increased worker engagement:
Facilities must provide workers with a functional grievance procedure where workers are able to present their grievances without fear of retribution. All grievances must be documented and addressed by management in a clear fashion to the person who presents the grievance, as well as to other workers if relevant.
$42.48 or $46.72 For Those Designer Jeans?
So the multi-billion dollar question is- Would you pay 10% more for your clothes if you knew the people who made them were guaranteed the same rights you enjoy at your job? Would you pay another 5-15% to ensure the quality of the air, soil and groundwater where the cotton was grown by buying organic?
We have been spoiled by the Wal-Mart effect, as manufacturers have been able to find increasingly low wage workers even while the technology of apparel manufacturing has barely evolved since the invention of the sewing machine. The machine itself had a tumultuous beginning, as tailors everywhere feared for their livelihoods. While other manufacturing has become increasingly automated, apparel sewing still requires human hands to accurately move the fabric through the machine, thus ensuring work for millions of people in developing countries.
So Why Not China?
TransFair’s pilot program includes factories in India, South America and Africa. But none in China, where it seems most clothing is made these days. It’s hard to pin down numbers on China’s apparel exports, but the New York Times wrote about China surpassing Germany as the world’s leading exporter last October. China has become the world’s leading exporter not in spite of their labor and environmental practices, but because of them. Until China becomes a place where it is safe for workers to complain about their bosses, we can vote against toxic and unfair manufacturing practices by buying products made in other countries, knowing that the Fair Trade label ensures the highest possible standards.
The program is still being developed, and apparel designers interested in using Fair Trade Certified factories should contact Tierra Forte for more information. TransFair’s Apparel Standards FAQ page is also quite helpful. While China has developed world-class manufacturing quality, TransFair will be working closely with certified factories to help them develop the capacity to compete with China regarding quality. This is a critical consideration for designers accustomed to using some of the higher-quality factories in China which can outperform many American and European factories.