Fair fashion

What is Fair Trade?

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

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 labourers work at the small garment factory in Jakarta with tasks, such as sewing, packaging, etc. Photographer: Asrian Mirza.   Go to: creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/igo/deed.en_US

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

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.

Understanding How Fashion Products Are Priced

We all have different motivators to buy a product: price, brand, availability, materials, style, and the list could go on. Regardless of what motivates you to buy, it’s important to know the factors that determine how fashion products are priced and this post is just the tip of the iceberg.

Variables in determining the product pricing:

  1. Where is the product made and who by? Is the product made in the US? Since most manufacturing moved overseas, there aren’t many facilities or skilled people which increases cost, especially as demands for local manufacturing rises. That coupled with the fact that labor/environmental laws in the US are better regulated and higher minimum wages makes US manufacturing costly.
  2. Where are the materials made? Same concept as where the product is being made.
  3. What materials is it made of? A more obvious contributor to higher cost: high quality materials made with care cost more.
  4. In what quantities are they being made and distributed? The more made and distributed, the cheaper the item is and vise versa.

One exception to the rule is when a product is over produced, not made to expectation or made before the buyer removed it from the order and then sold off for much cheaper. Outlet malls are an example of where the product might go, although that’s not the majority of items at an outlet mall. There are a other exceptions, some of which I list below the pricing structure.

So how are products priced? Here’s a basic formula for how they’re calculated: 

calculating retail and wholesale prices for fashion

Another variable which isn’t in the ‘basic’ pricing structure above is an additional markup for a showroom or sales rep which usually takes anywhere from 20-30% of the wholesale price. Also, if you’re selling to a larger retailer/department store, they will most likely want a discount on your wholesale prices because they are ordering a large sum. Every brand had a slightly different markup that works for them.

Another exception, which seems to be a trend now with online sales, is selling direct to consumer. This allows for you to significantly reduce the price as you don’t have to accommodate the retail markup. The hardest part about this is that you have to sell your product online in a competitive marketplace. This also means that you could never sell anything wholesale to retailers. When you work with a retailer, they have their own market which reaches new clients that you likely won’t have access to online. Direct to consumer sales are not easy, but for niche products it may be the way to go.

At the end of the day, the product you’re buying is from a business which hopes to make a profit in order to continue making products for you. When you buy something, you’re choosing to support that business so it is important to be informed.

This thought can be exhausting, I know. No one has time to research and make sure that everything they buy is ‘morally made,’ let alone, have the money to spend, likely on a higher ticket item. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just trust that the company is doing what’s best? This is one reason why buying from a specific company which has the same morals as you is great. They will do the filtering for you, rather than you having to investigate every product you buy. Just like paying an expert in another field, you’re paying a store to know what products you should buy.

So the next time you have ‘sticker shock,’ ask yourself, how was it made, and where was it made? Same thing with a product on the lower end. There is always a reason for why fashion products are priced the way they are.

Related/Recommended readings:

Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion

More on fashion business: The Fashion Designer Survival Guide, Start and Run Your Own Fashion Business


Adventures in Fair Trade Fashion

View from the top! Broadway and Herald Square, June 2012

A view from the top! From my last job, building located on Broadway and overlooking Herald Square, June 2012

After 12 years of apparel industry experience in NY and Philadelphia working for a number of brands from Levis & Dockers to Donna Karan,  fashion has been quite the eye opening experience for me.  Gone is naive idealism of a fashion student erased by the real-life, cut-throat world of the industry.  One of the things that began to bother me about the industry was the rampant inequity of the system.  Although the fair trade movement has been going on since the 1960’s, as far as ethical fashion it has been developing slowly through the past 20 years. I really became more interested in fair trade fashion around 2007 when I was working for Levis Dockers.  I had read about how some of their overseas manufacturers were scrutinized for their labor practices. That’s when I started obsessively researching fair trade fashion brands and what they do, and how they were different.

Lucky Breaks

There were 2 very fortunate incidents that occurred around this time, that helped to solidify this new path in conscious fashion, working at Donna Karan’s private line for the Urban Zen foundation and also volunteering with Sewing Hope, a project of the non-profit Fount of Mercy.

Photo courtesy of Sewing Hope

Photo courtesy of Sewing Hope

The Sewing Hope project was the Sewing and Tailoring training programs of Fount of Mercy that worked with local East African organizations, building their capacity to provide educational and vocational opportunities for their communities’ vulnerable.  One of the the keys to helping countries industrialize begins with the women and the grass roots cottage industry of the garment trade. Teaching women how to sew, so they are able to start their own businesses and earn money to support their children and create clothing for every member of their family.

Left to right: Designer Celestino, Model Jaslene G, Designer Rachel Gregory, Model Kim Tank, Designer Andrey Oshlykov.  Photos by Theodore Samuel

Left to right; Designer: Celestino, Model Jaslene Gonzalez, Designer: Rachel Gregory, Model Kim Tank, Designer: Emmet McCarthy, Model: Irina Roma. Photos by Theodore Samuel

I volunteered to be there event coordinator for their annual fashion show fundraisers, with all the proceeds of the event going directly back to the Sewing and Tailoring program in Uganda.  Everyone involved with the event were all volunteers; designers, models, hair and make-up, DJ’s , sound, lighting and photographers.  In the three years of helping to produce their annual shows, we were able to raise over $22,000.


Donna’s mission at Urban Zen was to create a “Soulful Economy, which means conscious consumerism, social responsibility and giving back. The Urban Zen Foundation creates, connects and collaborates to raise awareness and inspire change in the areas of well-being, preserving cultures and empowering children in mind, body and spirit. ”  I was at a place where all the hard work and long hours meant something more then just a paycheck,  and I worked alongside a fantastically driven team and an icon.

Be the Change

Two years ago I moved to Madison, WI with my husband and was thrilled to pick up a part-time position at a fantastic fair trade fashion boutique on Willy St. When I started working with Nikki at Change Boutique, I was super excited to finally have found a perfect alignment for my fashion background and my philanthropic desires.  In the past year we have been working on developing our own pieces and I have had my first taste of researching and developing products in a fair trade capacity.

I have learned a lot about ethical sourcing and manufacturing through this process and am continuing to learn more about it.  Since I’ve started working directly with fair trade, friends of mine in the NYC industry were quick to ask specifics about what fair trade really means.  It turns out that although there is very clear idealism behind the concept, clearly defining it is not as simple.  In posts in the following months,  I will share what I have learned and my ongoing exploits in producing fair trade & sustainable fashion locally and worldwide.