This is Part 2 of the Fairtrade Spectrum series. Catch up on Part 1 and grab a quick reference Infographic here.
Not all purchases are equal; some purchases can empower the people we share this world with and some purchases can exploit people and the environment. This Fairtrade Spectrum series is designed to help you arm yourself with knowledge for the next time you go shopping, enabling you to use your money in the best possible way.
In Part 1, you can find information on several specific fair trade certifications. These certifications were created with the regulation of working conditions and payment in mind – products bearing these certifications let you know that purchasing the product can help create a better world. In this second part of the Fairtrade Spectrum, I share other ways of shopping that ensure that people and environment are not being exploited.
IS THE PRODUCT…?
There are specific fair trade certifications. But wait… there’s more. A LOT more… in fact, the Eco Label Index lists some 435 different certifications. Additionally, many companies use their own labelling initiatives. Though most of the available certifications are focused on environmentally-friendly production, many certifiers claim to also assess products or members against social criteria. Some of the more common are Rainforest Alliance, UTZ (for food products), and Naturtextil (for textiles). This is good practice, but we should be aware that certifications outside those listed in Part 1 may not actually align with Fair Trade principles.
If I see a product bearing a certification mark I’m unfamiliar with, I look up the certification – the Eco Label Index is an excellent resource that gives a neutral overview of the characteristics of certifications including whether certifications are based on social criteria. Then I use my best judgment: to what extent does the certification guarantee ethical production and does it align with my values? Here’s some examples:
Where could you expect to find the EcoSocial certification?
On products. In Brazil. Well, okay…Though the EcoSocial certification was created by a Brazilian certifier called IBD certifications you could also find it elsewhere in America and even around the world.
It’s flexible. As a system without minimum prices, EcoSocial can apply to any product, even those that have not yet been valued.
It’s trustworthy and transparent. Companies using the EcoSocial mark are inspected and evaluated by IBD and the inspector’s reports are publicly available.
It’s good for society and the environment and your health, too. EcoSocial is a fair trade certification system for organic products. In other words, farming processes must be to organic standards, even though EcoSocial does not themselves certify this stage in production. As the name gives away, the EcoSocial system is focused on society and the environment. To obtain product certification companies must meet social and environmental standards, as well as minimum standards of transparency.
The not so good
No minimum price. EcoSocial does not set a minimum price or pay a premium – rather the product price is determined by market negotiations as is the case in ordinary trade. The negotiations are to take place according to a number of principles but there is no independent assessment of whether the agreed price is fair or not. There is disagreement over whether this is a good or bad thing. Proponents for setting a minimum price in trade argue that producers living in poverty, as the world’s most vulnerable people, need to be protected from market crashes. Proponents also argue that producers in remote regions have not have much exposure or education as to fair market prices and are often exploited. On the other hand, supporters of the EcoSocial system claim that ordinary trade can be fair without a minimum price, provided negotiations are transparent and ethical.
Limited recognition. I hadn’t come across the EcoSocial certification until I started researching this post. Then again, I do live in Australia (insert another ‘Down Under’ joke here). Nonetheless, EcoSocial doesn’t have it’s own Wikipedia page and based on that fact alone I’m going to judge the EcoSocial certification less popular than the Fairtrade, Fair Trade and WFTO marks.
…Global Organic Textile Standards (GOTS)
Where could you expect to find the GOTS certification?
On manufactured textiles (clothing), globally.
It’s good for society and the environment and your health, too. Like EcoSocial, GOTS is a certification system for organic products, but is specifically concerned with textiles. In other words, all certified GOTS products are organic. To be GOTS certified, a company must meet a number of social criteria in addition to environmental requirements. The social minimum criteria for GOTS certification is based on the key norms of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), which include the payment of a living wage, fair working hours, no child or forced labour, and safe and hygienic working conditions.
Clothing. In my opinion, the GOTS certification is the closest we come to certifying the entire supply chain for clothing; the standards cover processing, manufacturing, packaging, labelling, trading and distribution. The final product can only be labelled as GOTS certified if all levels of the supply chain are GOTS certified.
It’s trustworthy. The GOTS standards are backed up by independent certification.
Pre-loved: Vintage, recycled
Where can you find pre-loved clothing?
At stores owned by not-for-profit organisations that onsell donated clothing. Popular ‘op shops’ in Australia include Vinnies (St Vincent de Paul), the Salvos (the Salvation Army), and Anglicare. St Vincent de Paul and the Salvation Army also exist in the US with other ‘thrift stores’, including Goodwill. In addition to the multitude of amazing work they perform around the world, the Red Cross have second-hand stores around the world. Each of these organisations have location-specific websites so do a google search to find out more. Local second-hand stores easily hold their own with the big names in charity.
Increasingly, I’ve been seeing high street stores selling second-hand pieces, which have been redesigned or ‘up-cycled’. Unfortunately, this can be great for the environment, but not so great for workers; while this does reduce the environmental impact of manufacturing new materials, the fact that an item was once old does not guarantee that the workers who sewed the item into something new were paid a fair wage. For these sorts of items, it’s best to treat it as an ‘unknown’ unless it fits in to one of the other criteria in this spectrum.
Op shopping. Thrifting. Whatever you call it, you can’t deny that shopping for pre-loved clothing can be awesome. So awesome that a song about it even made it to number 1 in Triple J’s Hottest 100 of 2012.
It’s good for the environment. For me, one of the most compelling reasons to buy from op shops is the knowledge that clothes are going to be recycled, rather than going to landfill. Have you ever thought about how many items you buy in one year and throw out the next season? Yeah… now multiply those items by about 1,000,000,000 living in the developed world… just take a moment to think about the size of the dump needed to cater for that. It’s kinda mind-blowing.
It supports charity work. Some of the money you spend goes towards the overheads of running the store. The rest? It goes to helping the most vulnerable people in your community, ensuring that they themselves are clothed, fed, and have shelter and clean drinking water.
It’s affordable and unique. How many places are stocked full of one-of-a-kind pieces? When I resolved to shop more ethically, I also created some Style Resolutions. One of them was to spend more time browsing at op shops. Last week, I was thrilled to buy a red knit, yellow scoop neck T-shirt, black satchel, and pair of black patent shoes for $35 AUD.
It can be excellent quality. Unlike new cheap finds, cheap finds in op shops doesn’t mean corners have been cut on quality. All my finds from last week are as-new quality and made to last.
Your cheap finds aren’t encouraging the exploitation of workers. When something is new and $4, you know that corners have been cut on quality. You can also bet that corners have been cut on workers’ safety, conditions, training… and their pay has certainly been cut, too. If we constantly look for the lowest prices, stores are driven to lower their prices in order to be competitive. They still need to make profit somewhere – that ‘somewhere’ is the workers’ conditions and pay. Yet when something is in an op shop and $4, it’s a guilt-free bargain! Though it may have originally been made in a sweatshop, your money isn’t encouraging the cycle. Your money is contributing to charity initiatives, not to a company’s profit margin.
Your purchases aren’t going to workers. Just as your money isn’t contributing to a company’s profit margin, it also isn’t contributing to paying workers’ livings, which enable them to work their way out of poverty.
Where can you find handmade clothing?
It’s unique. It really does not get any better than this! Limited edition, one-of-a-kind, made-(well)-with-love pieces. The best part is that you’re supporting someone in their passion for craft and design through shopping.
It helps the environment. Handmade items are made with more love than mass-made items, but with less energy… as in power. Factories producing many versions of the same item use a lot of machinery, that uses a lot of energy and ultimately creates a lot of pollution. Handmade items are often made-to-order and so by buying handmade, we are also reducing waste.
The not so good
Is a wage being paid? Some designers and artisans making handmade clothing earn very little money, if any at all. Big companies have the infrastructure in place for mass production, which drives the cost of manufacture down. When you aren’t buying material in bulk, it can be expensive. And when you are sewing every piece by hand, you are working long hours (after hours). Designers and artisans who are trying to get a name for themselves may not be living in poverty within the World Bank’s definition, but they are often sewing for free, only charging enough to cover materials – where possible, pay a little extra.
Clothing materials. We know that the item is sewn by hand by the designer. But what of the material? The best option is to look for items made of Fairtrade certified materials (for cotton or cotton composites).
Made with transparency and traceability
Where can you find clothing made with transparency and traceability?
Unfortunately, there isn’t really a straightforward answer. Determining whether an item is made with transparency and traceability can only be done on a case-by-case basis, doing a bit of research and using your best judgment.
I’m generalising here, but it’s a good sign if a brand tells you where their clothing is made. And I don’t mean ‘Bangladesh’ or ‘China’, but factory locations. It’s better still if a company can tell you about the workers themselves (photos are a bonus). You can distinguish a company that shows true pride in their products and processes from a company that isn’t too interested in the story of their supply chain.
Fortunately, there are some organisations that have done most of the hard work for us. One is Made-By, who work with fashion and textile brands who want to become more ethical throughout their supply chain, from raw materials to finished products. Made-By support a brand in becoming more ethical in a transparent way.
It’s accountable. Where a company makes claims about their workers’ conditions, they are accountable to those claims (sometimes legally!). In general, companies that have less than desirable social standards – or turn a blind eye to their workers’ conditions – disclose as little as possible.
The not so good
No independent certification. Certification is an independent evaluation of a company’s standards; transparency relies upon a company’s honesty in their claims. Even if brands and products do not bear any certification, they nonetheless may adhere to Fair Trade standards provided that they are honest. Companies must may for the right to bear some certifications, including Fairtrade, so it’s understandable that not all companies obtain certification. Regardless of whether a company discloses a little, a lot, or absolutely no information about their supply chain, don’t be afraid to email the company and ask for answers to direct questions, such as: “do you adhere to the Fairtrade standards?”
Made locally: Australia, UK, France, USA
Where can you find clothing made locally?
Again, determining whether an item is made locally can only really be done on a case-by-case basis, maybe even a product-by-product; brands that do produce locally often also outsource. In other words, some clothing is made locally (for example, Australian companies that produce clothing Made in Australia) and some of their clothing is made offshore (i.e. in China). If you’re shopping in stores, check the tag. If you’re shopping online, most sites will specify where each product is made. If not, don’t hesitate to send an email asking about the origin of a specific item.
It’s fair. Good governance equals good laws which equal good conditions. In developing countries, even government officials are often living in poverty, meaning that corruption is a matter of survival. In a political environment where corruption goes unnoticed and unpunished, laws protecting workers’ rights are ignored, or simply don’t exist. Developed countries such as Australia, New Zealand, the UK, the USA, and most of Europe have governments that are generally transparent, open to public criticism, and accountable to their citizens. When workers demand laws which mandate good conditions, the government listen because their outcome at the next election could depend on it. And if the government doesn’t, there are always workers’ unions. Therefore, for products that are made locally (or in other developed countries), workers generally receive fair pay and conditions in line with local laws.
It’s good for the environment. When buying products that are made locally, you reduce the costs of transporting those products from the point of production to the point of sale. (Obviously this doesn’t apply if you’re buying products made in and transported from another developed country). With transport comes fuel and with fuel comes pollution, at the cost of our environment.
The not so good
It’s not always transparent. David Reiss, the man behind the Reiss label, warns that some brands claim that they are “Made in Italy” when, in fact, the item was only pressed, polished, or finished in Italy – the majority of the item is manufactured elsewhere. As David emphasises, transparency is incredibly important at all stages of production.
It’s not always fair. Even though developed countries tend to be more rigorous in enforcing local laws regarding wages and working conditions, laws are not always complied with. Reports have surfaced of brands paying local workers well beneath the legal minimum wages. In Australia, Ethical Clothing Australia was formed to avoid this very problem; the ECA label guarantees that everyone involved in the production of the garment in Australia received fair wages and worked in decent conditions. The ECA label does not guarantee that the material was produced ethical unless, of course, the material was manufactured in Australia.
Your purchases aren’t going to workers living in extreme poverty. Creating local jobs is not a bad thing, however if you’re concerned with empowering the world’s most vulnerable people and ending extreme poverty, shopping exclusively for local products may not be the best way to do it.
The above suggestions are good ways to ensure that people and the planet are not harmed or exploited to make goods and, ultimately, make a profit. However, products made in line with the above criteria may not actively support people to work their way out of poverty, as products bearing the fair trade certifications (as explored in Part 1) do. Rather, these suggestions are ‘ethical’ in the sense that they help us avoid ‘unethical’ companies – the type of companies that work out of sweatshops. Or, in the case of thrift shops, these suggestions are ‘ethical’ in that they help us avoid waste and the related environmental impacts, which have harmful effects on humans, too.
Avoiding companies that exploit their workers may relieve our conscience, but it may not relieve poverty if avoidance is all you do. After all, boycotting unethical companies may threaten their profits, which may in turn threaten job security in developing countries. Yet hitting companies where it hurts- their pockets – can be an incredibly effective catalyst for change provided you let those companies know why you are avoiding them.
In summary, buying products that are made in line with one or more of the above criteria isn’t bad… but it’s not always great in terms of fighting poverty either, unless you combine the power of your purchases with the power of your voice to change the status quo.
Are you avoiding a particular company? Would you like help writing a letter or email to let them know why? I’m always happy to help – simply let me know in the comments, below!