Thousands of workers and their unions rallied across Bangladesh April 24, the one-year anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse that killed more than 1,100 garment workers. The Solidarity Center is training garment worker organizers–many of them women–and supporting their efforts to demand safe factories. Credit: Solidarity Center/Sifat Sharmin Amita, CC BY-ND 2.0
Fair Trade Focuses on the Well-Being of People and the Environment
The purpose of any business is to make money. Yes, and especially when that business is a large multi-national corporation legally obligated to make as much money as possible for their shareholders. However, all too often it comes to the detriment of workers and the environment.
The fair trade movement is a reaction to this assault on people and the environment. The goal of this movement is to create a business model where the focus is shifted away from gaining profits for the wealthy few. Instead, the fair trade movement focuses on the well-being of both people who are actually doing the work and the ecosystems that make this planet the only one we know of with life on it.
The Fair Trade Federation, an organization dedicated to promoting the global fair trade movement while building equitable and sustainable trading partnerships and creating opportunities to alleviate poverty, explains further:
Fair trade is an approach to business and to development based on dialogue, transparency, and respect that seeks to create greater equity in the international trading system.
Fair trade supports farmers and craftspeople in developing countries who are socially and economically marginalized. These producers lack economic opportunity and often face steep hurdles in finding markets and customers for their goods.
Fair trade is about making a tremendous impact on artisan and farmer communities while offering great products to the public. Communities are improved; nutritional needs met; health care costs are covered; the poor, especially women, are empowered; the environmental impact of production, sourcing, and transport is mitigated to the fullest extent possible. Such an impact is created because Fair Trade approaches development as a holistic process.
Garment Factories and the Cost of Big Fashion
To understand the goals and the value of fair trade it is important to understand the way big fashion works. As most fashion companies move their production overseas, they are inherently capitalizing and exploiting the built in currency strength of the US dollar in foreign countries. This undermines the major strides unions made in the early to mid 1900’s that built the American middle class. That’s not to say all companies that produce overseas are treating the workers badly or exploiting them. Even in the case of the companies that are exploiting their workers, the jobs they are providing may be better than the alternatives for some. But those workers now find themselves in a situation that American workers in the early 1900’s were in, while the jobs that helped so many Americans climb into the middle class are disappearing.
ILO in Asia and the Pacific., Child laborers work at the small garment factory in Jakarta with tasks, such as sewing, packaging, etc. Credit: Asrian Mirza, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Quality of the goods factors in as well because of the fierce competition within the fashion industry. But because of this the quality of the environment is left behind and the lives of the people involved are often conveniently overlooked in the name of profit. Major US apparel corporations generally have an extended network of overseas manufacturers that they have worked with before or are connected to through other corporations. These factories are specialized for particular types of production (e.g. cut and sew knits, leather, denim).
A veteran Production Head, will have a sense of how many styles they are producing for the season. They determine what the cost is to get it produced and will then negotiate on how low the manufacturer can go to meet their needs. Many times when this is done with overseas manufacturers, their desire to keep clients happy and place huge orders means that the factory reps will start seeking other local laborers who can help them meet these orders.
For additional information on the subject, the Human Rights Watch has discussed labor rights abuses in Cambodia’s Garment Industry in their report “Work Fast or Get Out”.
The Detriments of Overseas Manufacturing
This is where the breakdown in the supply chain happens. USA apparel companies “trust” that their overseas manufacturer sources local labor to help meet their demands. It easy for situations like this to turn corrupt, because the Factory Owners & Merchandiser knows the local laws, and does whatever they need to do to make the order happen. They are not obligated to operate by the same ethical or fair trade standard that a “USA” apparel company does.
Another common practice for overseas manufacturers, who work strictly with a brand or label is to have your “show” factory or headquarters. When outside NGO’s or quality control auditors make “surprise” inspections factory seems compliant. The overseas manufacturers may hide the extensive network of sub-contracted satellite sewing operations that are not directly associated to USA apparel brand and probably don’t meet the U.S. Apparel companies ethical or labor standards.
Since these satellite operations are only managed by the local manufacturers contact point, it is not surprising that horrific incidents such as the Rana Plaza factory building collapse could happen. Western brands that were getting made in this factory did not comment or reply, because they honestly might not have known the level to which their 1000+ units of orders were getting subcontracted out to. Transparency is hard to trace in the multi-national corporate machine of big fashion and that’s why the transparency promoted by the fair trade movement and the production of traceable small units made locally or by third party certified global organizations or NGO’s is so crucial in protecting the workers.
Meanwhile while public pressure may have some impact it is easy for large companies to slip back into their “profit before all else” ways. Companies may make changes while the pressure is on and then once people have forgotten about the issue, somehow find themselves doing exactly what they had committed not to do.
Back in 2002, H&M for example, promised to ban PVC from all their products, a commendable commitment in response to campaigns on what was back then a hot topic. Fast forward to 2011 and with other environmental issues making headlines H&M have inexplicably backtracked and are using PVC once again.
Garment Workers in Deathtrap_ Taslima Akhter_ Nobody knows who are they, what is the relation between them but the crude reality make them closer and may be they are trying to save each other and the last moment of their life from the death trap of Savar Rana Plaza_. Embrace in Death. Near about 438 workers died as building Collapse at Savar Rana Plaza. Most of them are women. Savar Dhaka, Bangladesh, 24th April 2013. Credit: Times Asi, CC BY 2.0
What Do We Do?
We can turn a blind eye and say “it’s just the way it is”.
Or we can raise a ruckus with the media and our representatives in government. Because of the the over 1 million consumers world wide that have raised their voices and pressured the major fashion brands that were manufactured in the horrific Rana Plaza collapse, we have a great victory today. But, we can’t stop now.
We must support alternatives business models that are making real impacts on the lives of the workers producing the goods and the environment that is sustaining us all.
Fair trade is making those differences and the more people who become aware and support fair trade with their purchasing choices, the bigger of an impact it will have on workers, the environment, and the businesses currently operating under the classic exploitative model.