In a market based largely on vanity and profit, can fashion really be fair?


Clare Lissaman argues that fair trade fashion, when done with support and development input, can make a real difference

Clare Lissaman

Guardian Professional, Thursday 5 July 2012 16.16 BST


Carry Somers, managing director of Pachacuti, a fair trade producer of fair trade Panama Hats. Photograph: Gary Calton

Fashion, whether you love it or hate, it is a part of our lives – and it has a big impact. In the UK, the fashion industry contributes more than £20m to GDP, more than publishing and car manufacturing, according to research commissioned by the British Fashion Council. In less developed countries, the textile and garment industries are seen by governments and development policy makers as relatively easy entry-level industries that create jobs, attract foreign investment and thus contribute to growth and development. The fact that this growth often comes at the expense of the workers is well documented.

But fashion can also be fair. In May, producers, traders and retailers celebrated World Fair Trade Day. Of the World Fair Trade Organisation(WFTO)’s 350+ members, over one third are involved in fashion. From Uruguay to India, Nepal to Senegal, Indonesia to Kenya, there are groups of people coming together, sometimes under the auspices of an NGO, sometimes as a co-operative, sometimes forming a company, to develop their traditional skills and translate them into products that can be sold globally, to learn new skills and to improve their livelihoods.

For some brands, fair trade means simply that they pay what they consider to be a fair price for their products. WFTO members go much further and commit to following the 10 Principles of Fair Trade. For them, fair trade is about providing opportunities for the economically disadvantaged. They also cover not just paying a fair price and providing good working conditions, but also trading practices, capacity building and promoting fair trade.

These are laudable aims – but are they actually being achieved? The WFTO has historically taken a peer-review approach to assessing how its members are doing against these principles, but it has recently been developing the WFTO Fair Trade System to provide a more robust, organisational system compliance mechanism. (The more familiar Fairtrade Mark only certifies that the cotton in a garment is Fairtrade, not the entire production). Once this system is up and running, it should be easier to measure and compare the impact of fair trade fashion chains.

At the moment, however, although each fair trade company and producer group can cite examples of individual lives transformed, empirical studies are few and far between. (The majority of impact studies of fair trade have been conducted on food chains.) Two interesting studies are Dr Ann Le Mare’s Exploring the power to change: fair trade, development and handicraft production in Bangladesh and Mary Littrell and Marsha Dickson’s Artisans and fair trade – crafting development.

Le Mare’s research showed that while having employment of any kind increased development, those women who were working in fair trade networks benefited more than their neighbours who were engaged in purely commercial chains. It seemed that this was due not necessarily to higher income but to forming groups within the fair-trade networks and participating in the development-focused capacity-building activities of the fair trade organisation.

Littrell and Dickson conducted an in-depth case study and socio-economic audit of MarketPlace: Handwork of India, a WFTO member based in Mumbai and working with low-income artisans. Like Le Mare, they concluded that working for MarketPlace had a positive impact on the artisans’ livelihoods beyond just enabling them to meet their financial needs; they also benefited in terms of their capabilities and wellbeing, and their social capital accumulation increased. Again, much of this was ascribed to the strength that the producers found in being part of a group and to the capacity-development input provided by MarketPlace.

Fair trade in fashion is also about celebrating traditional skills and crafts. At one level, this may be about ensuring that the producers receive a fair share of a traditional product that already has value in the market. According to Pachacuti, a fair-trade panama hat specialist, Ecuadorian panama hat weavers are at the mercy of middle men, and forced to take whatever price they are offered. As a result, more and more of the weavers are migrating and seeking other work. But by paying fairly and providing training, their co-operative has actually been gaining weavers, helping not only keep a traditional craft alive but also enabling families to stay together.

On a different level, contemporary designers work with artisans across the world, taking their traditional designs, using their skills but reworking them in a modern way. Soham Dave, a US-based lifestyle brand, does exactly this, working with artisans in India to create handwoven and printed fabrics and then cutting them into modern silhouettes. This approach is not without controversy. At an Ethical Fashion Forum Sourcing from Africa seminar in 2009, the room was divided between those who saw such an approach as cultural dilution and those who saw it as a natural development in a globalised world.

Deliberately seeking out the economically disadvantaged and trying to fit their skills and experience into supply chains that operate in western markets may sometimes seem like trying to fit a round peg into a square hole. No brand involved in fair trade fashion says it is easy, but in an increasingly homogenous market, isn’t fair trade fashion, something that values the production process and the producers, worth celebrating?

Clare Lissaman is a consultant on ethical and fair trade and corporate social responsibility. She is a board member of the Ethical Fashion Consultancy


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