Fair Trade USA, the only third-party fair trade-certifier in the U.S, has launched a clothing certification that guarantees consumers that the clothing they purchase was not made in a sweatshop.
Heather Franzese, Senior Category Manager for Apparels and Linens at Fair Trade USA has led the development of international fair trade garment certification standards, meeting with cotton farmers and garment factory owners all over the world. I was told by the company that “On any given day, she might Skype with or visit in person workers and factories in India, Peru, Liberia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Bangladesh, Costa Rica, or Nicaragua. She can speak about Fair Trade garments from the perspective of a worker, a factory owner, a cotton farmer and a U.S garment business owner.”
Both the farms where the cotton is grown and the factories where the clothing is sewn are inspected and certified to ensure that there are both better working conditions and higher incomes for both farmers and traditionally underpaid garment workers.
Hopefully, Fair Trade USA will eventually work with the U.S where many farmers and garment factory workers stateside could use the help as well.
I caught up with Franzese to find out more about the launch of the certification for garments and textiles currently being set up in underdeveloped countries. Here’s what she had to say:
When did you launch the new certification?
Fair Trade Certified clothing is brand new in the U.S. The pilot standards for Fair Trade factories were published in March 2010 after several years in development. During a public comment period last year, we heard from 55 organizations in 15 countries and incorporated that input into the certification standards and process.
What brands have joined on as part of the certification?
A dozen pioneering companies have committed to launch Fair Trade Certified apparel and house wares. Organic pioneers like Maggie’s Organics and Indigenous Designs, as well as brand new eco-fashion brands like Liberty & Justice, which produces tees at a factory in Liberia that focuses on women’s empowerment.
Are there any Fair Trade farms you’re working with in the U.S?
Not at this time. Fair Trade was started in order to level the playing field for poor farming communities in the developing world, to extend the same social and safety protections that we enjoy here in the U.S but don’t exist in developing countries, and to help empower farming communities through vibrant, global trade. That said, we know there are also inequities here in the U.S and that farmers and workers could benefit from Fair Trade certification.
Today, Fair Trade cotton is grown by 37 certified cotton farmer groups in 10 countries: India, Mali, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Senegal, Egypt, Peru, Brazil, Nicaragua and Kyrgyzstan. A little goes a long way in these countries. In Mali, for example, 95 percent of children of Fair Trade farmers go to school because farming communities receive more money. This is more than double the national average for school attendance in the fourth poorest country on earth.
Do you think Fair Trade certifications empower us as consumers?
Yes. We believe that certification helps consumers make every purchase matter. Fair Trade Certified apparel gives you a way to vote with your dollars for an alternative to sweatshops. For 15 years, we’ve been hearing about companies sourcing from sweatshops but the only information on the tag inside your shirt is the country where it’s made. That doesn’t tell you anything about the working conditions. Now, for the first time, you can walk into a clothing store and translate your concern about sweatshops into real dollars and cents for the farmers and workers that make your clothes, just by choosing apparel with the Fair Trade Certified label.
How are you able to monitor the farms and manufacturing facilities?
Fair Trade USA works with a network of local partners to conduct training and inspections at cotton farms and sewing facilities in countries like India, Peru, Costa Rica and Liberia. We also train workers on their rights and how to contact us if they feel that Fair Trade standards are not being met. This empowers workers to become monitors of their own workplace.
Can you explain how your “Fair-Trade Premiums” and “Worker-Controlled Funds” work?
Fair Trade premiums are funds that are specifically earmarked for social and community investment. For each item of Fair Trade Certified clothing you buy, the company selling it pays a percentage of the cost directly into a fund that is controlled by workers in the factory where the clothing was sewn. Workers collectively decide how they want to spend the money.
In my travels over the last year to factories in India, Peru and Liberia, workers have told me they want computer and literacy classes, scholarships for their children to go to high school and college, child care, health clinics and small business loans. In essence, the same kinds of things we want for our communities.
Cotton farmers also earn a Fair Trade premium. I visited cotton farmers in India in January that had used Fair Trade earnings to buy a mill to process lentils and sell them locally to earn more for their families.
When we talk about the idea of sustainability, how does Fair Trade fit in and how important is it?
In Fair Trade, we see sustainability as both an environmental as well as a socio-economic issue. Fair Trade has strict environmental standards that prohibit GMOs and limit or prohibit the use of pesticides on the Pesticide Action Network’s Dirty Dozen list. These can be harmful to the environment and to farmers’ health. Nearly half of Fair Trade Certified products imported into the U.S. in 2009 were also certified organic, and even more producers are using earnings from Fair Trade to fund their transition to organic production. Farmers also establish local environmental plans to manage waste, water and energy, and reduce soil erosion.
And then there is socio-economic stability. Fair Trade provides the foundation for vibrant trade through access to credit, international markets and training so that communities become empowered.
It’s a development effort to build trade and independence, not simply give aid that can result in dependence.