This is the second in our series "Ethical Shopping, Ethical Clothing." We are deeply interested in what moves someone to wear natural, organic and sustainable clothing. After surveying hundreds of people, several factors standout as the major motivating factors: personal health, health of the environment, healthy styling and superior feel of organic fabrics, and ethical considerations.
The conventional garment industry is not only a major source of environmental pollution, but it is also a significant source of social pollution and global misery. In the last posting we explored the factors giving rise to garment sweatshops and how becoming informed is the first step in combating the problem. Now we will look at the role of ethical shopping for positive change in the garment and fashion industry.
Simply, ‘ethical shopping’ is buying products and services that are ethically made by companies and countries acting ethically. What might be unethical to one person, such as the use of leather in shoes and accessories, might not be unethical to another while both might agree that the use of fur apparel crosses an ethical line. Or they might not agree. What is important is that everyone become informed about the issues and then forms their own ethical opinions.
The three corners of the ethical shopping triangle are human rights, animal welfare, and the environment. Almost all socially responsible shopping considerations will concern ethics over one of these issues. Human rights considerations include desperately low paying and unhealthy sweatshop conditions, discrimination against women, races, or sexual orientation, and exploitive child labor. Animal welfare considerations include inhumane treatment of animals used in the production and testing of products. Environmental issues include any growing and manufacturing practices which pollute and damage the environment and the use of genetically modified fibers such as cotton and soy.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, (PETA), is well known for slopping paint on the fur coats of the rich and famous, disrupting fashion shows to protest the use of furs and animals skins for fashion, and even for recently dusting Paris Hilton with flour while she was walking next to fashionista designer Julien MacDonald. PETA explained that they were attempting to coat Julien MacDonald in flour to “help him rise to the occasion and forsake fur once and for all.”
Some extend ethical treatment to all life – animals and insects – and advocate renouncing the use of silk in clothing. Silk is manufactured by boiling the cocoon created by the mulberry silkworm Bombyx mori. Unfortunately, the silkworm larvae are still inside the cocoons and alive when they are thrown into the boiling water. It’s up to each of us to decide where our ethical edges and limits are.
The two tools of the ethical shopper are positive shopping (supporting companies and buying ethically-produced goods and services) and negative shopping (boycotting companies and refusing to buy goods that are not ethically-produced or by companies that have unethical business practices). When given the choice between two garments of comparable quality and style, people will generally purchase what is least expensive. For the ethical shopper, the choice is a little more complicated and involves the ethical reputation of the company, the fabrics used such as organic v. conventional, the store selling the garment such as Ecolution v. Wal-Marts, and even the animal husbandry practices of the country where wool used in the garment came from. A survey in 1996 revealed that over 70% of shoppers would refuse to buy a shirt if they knew that it was made by exploited child labor. A socially responsible shopper is an informed shopper who supports the goals of social, humanitarian and environmental responsibility.
Realistically, though, there just aren’t enough hours for each of us to do the research needed to stay informed about all the products, companies, countries and issues so we, as consumers, need help to see our ways through the seas of information overload. One of those helpful lighthouses is the Fair Trade label.
Fair trade programs were designed to guarantee fair and stable prices, decent and safe working conditions, local sustainability, and fair terms of trade for farmers and agricultural workers in developing countries. Fair trade programs have been established for food stuffs such as coffee, cocoa, bananas, spices and tea and more than a 1000 other products. Fair trade programs also offer financing to small farmers and farming co-ops and help them establish long term marketing and trade relationships. A premium is included in the product price paid to the farmers to help finance community improvement projects such as schools, healthcare, and water and sanitation. Fair trade programs have also been established to workers on large tea plantations to guarantee that workers receive a fair and just wage and that they are able to join labor unions and work under safe conditions. Fair trade programs are slowly being expanded to include cotton for the garment industry, cut flowers and ornamental plants, and the manufacturing of sport balls.
The concept for fair trade labeling was developed in the Netherlands in the late 1980’s by Max Havelaar and coffee grown in Mexico was the first product to receive a fair trade label certifying that the farmers received a fair price for their product. Today, a growing movement of national and international organizations promotes fair trade policies, setting standards, and certifying products for compliance. The large fair trade organizations include:
- The International Federation of Alternative Trade (IFAT) – a coalition of more than 70 Alternative Trade Organizations (ATOs) from more than 30 nations working with small handicraft and agricultural producer organizations in developing countries.
- The European Fair Trade Association (EFTA) – an association of 11 fair trade organizations in 9 European countries. European countries lead the world in their concern and commitment to fair trade. EFTA members import from over 550 producer groups in 44 countries.
- The Fairtrade Labeling Organization International (
FLO) – comprised of fair trade organizations in 19 countries and sets international standards for fair trade products and monitors the compliance by the growers and producers.
- TransFair USA – The US member of FLO and the only third-party certifier of Fair Trade products in the US.
Consumer groups have been successful in encouraging large corporations to use fair trade-certified products. Think Starbucks, which has increased the amount of fair trade coffees it carries but still resists converting more of their coffees to fair trade. Starbucks liberally greenwashes their purchasing policies to appear more supportive of fair trade.
The ethical shopper needs to remember a few important points, though, when considering garments that carry a Fair Trade label.
One, apparel with a Fair Trade label is not necessarily organic or eco-friendly. Most fair trade organizations encourage, but do not require, that farmers and growers use organic and sustainable farming practices.
Two, a Fair Trade label does not guarantee that a garment was not made under sweatshop conditions. The Fair Trade label only certifies that the cotton was grown under fair trade conditions and does not cover the apparel manufacturing process. Fair trade policies attempt to make the entire supply chain more transparent. Each processor of fair trade cotton – from the cotton ginner, through the yarn spinner, knitter, weaver, dyer, and garment manufacturer – is required to submit independent documentation regarding the efforts they are making to comply with fair labor standards. Fair trade cotton complements the work of other organizations, such as the Clean Clothes Campaign, Labour Behind the Label (which is the UK organization for the Clean Clothes Campaign) and the Fair Wear Foundation, to improve the conditions for all workers in the garment industry supply chain.
Three, a Fair Trade label does not guarantee that the garment was manufactured under environmentally-friendly and healthy processes. It also does not guarantee that the manufacturing process used eco-friendly low-impact dyes and did not use harsh and toxic chemicals during the manufacturing and finishing processes. The garment manufacturing supply chains are still notoriously cloudy and non-transparent, especially in China.
So, what’s the Ethical Shopper to do? As always, be informed. Research the issues, organizations and companies. Avoid shopping at the stores identified by the sweatshop watch groups as supporting sweatshops. Shop at stores which offer ethically manufactured clothing. Almost all organic clothing apparel is ethically grown and manufactured because Fair Trade is a cornerstone of the organic industry. Fair Trade certification insures that the product was grown and produced under conditions which respect the environment and the health, safety, and rights of the workers to a decent and fair wage. Here are some examples of clothing co-ops using fair trade principals and practices to improve the quality of life in communities around the world.
Joe Turner and the Freedom Clothing Project, a not-for-profit garment manufacturing co-operative, is attempting to bring much-needed work to some of the estimated 500 clothing manufacturers in Gaza and the occupied West Bank and to assist them in finding new markets for their products. Their first garments are simple, well-made tee shirts. The Freedom Clothing Project uses organic cotton and provides healthy and environmentally friendly working conditions to these very poor but capable garment workers whose lands have been ravished by years of war and strife. The world community can help bring peace to this troubled region by breaking the poverty that breeds extremism and desperation.
Many indigenous workers in developing countries have banded together to form co-ops to grow and manufacture their goods and products. Indigenous Designs is a progressive wholesale clothing company with a mission to provide training, sustainable employment, and fair wages for local and mountain-dwelling weavers, knitters and textile artisans in the mountains of Peru and Ecuador. Indigenous Designs works with more than 200 knitting and hand-looming co-op groups comprised mostly of peoples indigenous to their area.
After the decimation of the U.S. garment manufacturing industry through outsourced apparel manufacturing to low-cost manufacturing in developing countries, Maggie’s Organics helped develop Maquiladora Mujeres, a worker-owned cooperative in Nueva Vida, Nicaragua. Maggie’s Organics, a pioneer in developing the organic clothing market, has been dedicated to developing cooperative partnerships with workers who have a stake in their own future and to Fair Trade practices.
Some organic clothing manufacturers such as Earth Creations and Blue Canoe have created highly ethical and successful apparel operations by doing their own apparel manufacturing within the U.S. They have demonstrated that it is possible to successfully manufacture purely beautiful clothing onshore.
The World Wide Web is a handy tool and a little time roaming around can be helpful. Look for Fair Trade and Certified Organic fiber labels. Find manufacturers and retailers that you can trust and ask them questions until you are satisfied that their garments meet your ethical, environmental and personal health concerns. And contact us if you have other comments, questions or concerns.
Become informed. Shop ethically. Dress beautifully. Enjoy.
Purely Beautiful, Healthy & Ethichal Clothing