20 July 2007

Fair trade clothing

While on the plane a few weeks ago I was intrigued by this article by Margaret Littman in the airline magazine, American Way: Fair Deal. It's the story of Bill Bass's effort to expand the notion of fair trade beyond the coffee market and into the apparel industry. His company, Fair Indigo, has a laudable aim:

We create fashionable, high-quality clothing and accessories while paying a fair wage to the people who produce them. It's a concept known as fair trade and it means we put people first.

How does it work?

Fair Indigo now works with 25 factories across the globe; some specialize in skirts, others in sweaters. Bass says Fair Indigo’s business model of selling directly to customers, through catalogs, the Internet, and its own boutiques, as opposed to selling through national retailers, keeps overhead low enough that it can afford to pay workers at its factories more. Because Fair Indigo is a private firm, Bass will not release sales figures, but he says the company is on track to turn a profit within four years, a time frame analysts say is in line for new apparel companies, fair trade or not.

Fair trade is apparently not an easy concept to implement within the fashion industry, as Littman indicates:

Defining fair trade has been one of the challenges for companies like Fair Indigo that want to go mainstream with a concept many still see as existing only in the margins. At its most basic, the term indicates that the people who create the product are paid a living wage and have decent working conditions. Some expand that definition to include having the right to unionize and access to health care. Others, including the Fair Trade Federation in Washington, D.C., limit it to apply only to workers in developing nations. Often those who support fair trade also support the use of organics and other green initiatives, concerns that are tangential to fair trade, which is all about the labor practices.

Does fair trade represent a trend that could make its way into the production and sale of other goods? Time will tell.

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