As consumers, each of us has the power to make a positive impact through our purchasing decisions. One way we can do this is by choosing Fair Trade products which help to improve the lives of the workers who make them. The method is simple: for every Fair Trade product manufactured or grown, a premium is paid to the people behind it, from coconut farmers in the Philippines to coffee farmers in Colombia and factory workers in India and Sri Lanka making clothing and furniture.
WHAT MAKES A FACTORY FAIR TRADE CERTIFIED?
- - Rigorous standards for health and safety
- - Respect for the environment
- - No child or forced labour
- - Maternity and paid leave
- - Community empowerment
- - Additional money back to workers
Ethical shoppers are used to looking out for the Fair Trade label when purchasing products such as bananas, coffee and chocolate. However, the garment industry has been slower to wake up to the benefits of Fair Trade. There are lots of reasons for this. For example, the process of making one Fair Trade jacket can involve over 70 pairs of hands – many more than it takes to get a banana from plantation to supermarket. But even with the added complexity, in the wake of the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh in 2003, in which over 1,000 people died, it's vital that fashion brands start taking a more responsible approach towards the workers behind their products.
One brand which is committed to offering its customers Fair Trade is Patagonia, the California-based outdoor company with the mission to build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, and use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis. Known for its ongoing commitment to environmental activism, contributing over $89 million in grants and in-kind donations to date, the company is also working to improve the lives of the people who make Patagonia products around the world.
Since 2014, Patagonia's Fair Trade programme has grown rapidly. It began with 10 Fair Trade clothing styles in a single factory in the autumn of 2014, and by spring of 2017, it had launched the world's first full line of Fair Trade Certified board shorts and bikinis. In Autumn 2017, Patagonia is offering 480 Fair Trade styles made in 14 different factories.
The Fair Trade programme is one stage in Patagonia's ongoing strategy for achieving fair wages for workers. Patagonia pays a premium for Fair Trade products, and the extra money goes directly into a workers' fund, with the workers deciding how to spend it. Because every Fair Trade product sold sends money back to workers through these premium payments, Patagonia has chosen products that ensure high volume orders and therefore significant returns for the workers.
More than 26,000 workers have benefitted from the premiums Patagonia has paid through the Fair Trade programme. Since 2014, these premiums have provided a day-care centre, health programmes, market vouchers, baskets, water filters and other necessities, as well as cash bonuses.
Fair Trade is a simple way to help make a difference in the lives of the people working in garment factories, and shoppers can become agents of change by spending consciously, doing their homework on the social responsibility commitments of the brands they buy, and encouraging other major clothing brands to follow suit by letting them know how important this issue is to them.
Each of us can make a difference and help improve the lives of the people who make our clothes, food and other goods. And we can force the world's leading brands to join a Fair Trade revolution, whether they are selling bananas or baseball caps.
Fair Trade in Action
At MAS ACTIVE-LEISURELINE in Sri Lanka, workers have spent their Fair Trade premiums on market vouchers that allow them to buy food items, toiletries, medicine and other household necessities. The factory worked with a local vendor to negotiate a discount rate for these products. The local vendor is a small business owner who has said he and his workers now also benefit from Fair Trade and are grateful for the continued business, with the orders from MAS helping maintain his company and keep his workers.
At HIDARAMANI-CKT APPAREL in Sri Lanka, the factory started a health programme to give workers a safe and comfortable space to discuss sensitive health problems. Previously, female workers stayed home from work when they got their periods each month because of a cultural taboo around menstruation and lack of access to feminine hygiene products. Female workers now receive a monthly sanitary towel kit and don't need to stay home and miss out on wages, and can talk more openly about gynaecological health. Male workers are given six pairs of underwear each year. The same factory also spent Fair Trade premiums on building and maintaining a day-care centre – free to access for all workers. This has meant that more parents are able to continue working and rest assured that their children are well taken care of, increasing staff retention and improving community wellbeing.
At factories around the world, worker committee meetings set up to decide what to do with Fair Trade premiums have provided an opportunity for workers and management to communicate more deeply. The meetings offer a neutral setting where workers are free to speak their minds about the needs of the workforce. Through this process, at PRATIBHA in India the management of the factory began to understand the simple things they could do to improve the lives of their workers. For example, lots of people living in the company dormitory said they missed having a kitchen where they could cook recipes from their home region. Rather than using the premiums from the workers' fund to pay for this, the management built a communal kitchen, allowing workers to spend the money on other things. Management also provided workers with a cover for their bicycles so they didn't get rusty in monsoon season, and paid for uniforms to prevent them from getting their own clothes dirty at work.
Images by Keri Oberly (opening image, and fourth and fifth image), Tim Davis (second and third image), and Theodore Kaye (final image).