by guest blogger Toni Becker, member of the Rodale’s editorial team
According to a report by the American Apparel and Footwear Association (AAFA), in 2013, Americans spent $361 billion on apparel and footwear, and 97 percent of that clothing was imported from other countries.
This clothing is made by real people in factories that are, oftentimes, unmonitored by clothing manufacturers. Our clothing purchases have a direct impact on the lives of these people.
It’s easy to distance ourselves from the manufacturing process. We purchase clothing in a country that offers a great deal of protection to workers, without considering that the person who made our garment might be working well outside of those protections.
Until something so heinous occurs, and we’re forced to take notice.
Behind the Label
In 2013, more than 1,100 factory workers died in a building collapse in Bangladesh. The building housed several apparel factories that make clothing for mostly Western brands.
In the aftermath of this tragedy, reports about poor construction, code violations, and no building permits rolled in. It was also reported that on the day before the collapse, an engineer deemed the building unsafe, but the owners still insisted that employees return to work.
When we start to explore the social, economic, and environmental weight of our purchases, we begin to understand that clothing is more than a commodity. It’s also a connection between human beings thousands of miles from where we stand and us.
So, what can we do as Americans whose demand for more apparel leads to greater pressure on workers in developing countries? Enter fair trade certification.
Ensuring Fairness and Safety
Fair Trade USA, which was founded in 1998 and is the leading third-party certifier of fair-trade products in the United States, works to provide farmers and workers producing Fair Trade Certified goods with fair wages, safe working conditions, and environmental protection, as well as development funds to empower their communities.
In 2012, the organization expanded its focus to include clothing, adding the Apparel and Home Goods division, which sets forth a set of more than 330 compliance criteria for textile factories. To earn Fair Trade certification, companies must meet specific factory and trade standards. Since expanding to the apparel and home goods space, the certification has rapidly begun to catch on in the last few years with companies committed to human rights.
When you choose to buy fair trade, you’re benefitting both the farmers and the workers who manufacture the products. As with other goods that meet certification standards, you’re helping to provide better wages, working conditions, and put in place more environmentally friendly practices, such as encouraging farming of organic cotton. You’re also empowering communities.
An Example of Fair Trade Commitment
Sustainable apparel vendor Toad & Co. aims “to create meaningful change through socially and environmentally smart business.” The clothing company wants consumers to be able to walk into any of its factories and leave feeling good. Toad & Co. is committed to promoting fair labor practices and safe working conditions in all factories producing its goods, and it works to find partners that have also made a commitment to human rights.
The company’s partner in Turkey manages the entire manufacturing process, from the farming of its organic cotton to the assembly of the final garments. By processing in one country, it can reduce the environmental footprint and increase traceability on all production platforms.
Recently, that manufacturing partner has strengthened its commitment to sustainability by switching to solar energy at the factory—a transition that has reduced their carbon emissions by half.
Another partner in El Salvador has made a strong commitment to the community. Its entire manufacturing team and their families receive free medical care at the on-site clinic that also serves other members of the community. Separately, the partner company runs an equine therapy program to treat community members with disabilities. It also provides free primary daycare to children of employees and free schooling to more than 500 kids.
As consumers, we have a social responsibility to spend our money wisely. We have a choice where our portion of the $361 billion spent on apparel goes. We can continue to turn our heads and blindly support an industry that shows little regard for human rights or protection of the environment. Or we can take a stand and pay attention to the clothing we’re buying, where it’s made, and who is making it, helping to improve the lives of other humans just like us.
Toni Becker is a part-time content creator at Rodale’s. She is also the personal chef, event planner, chauffeur, and best of all playmate to her young daughter. Her family of three lives in the woods where she finds time to write, cook anything she can from scratch, garden, and build her case of why she needs goats.