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Fair Trade USA ‘Breaking Down Walls’ Between Factories, Brands and Consumers

As social justice and inclusivity have dominated industry conversations, the concept and actual measurement and certification of Fair Trade could be more than just a way to improve manufacturing in various industrial sectors.

Fair Trade’s mission of improving the workplace and lives of factory workers offers relevance for the social movements of today, while also continuing to take on the apparel and other industries it aims to raise to better levels of operation.

That was the message of “Journey to Fair Trade and Sustainability,” part of the Texworld NYC virtual webinar series held last week.

Asked by moderator Thimo Schwenzfeier, show director for organizer Messe Frankfurt, if the public understands what fair trade is, Paul Rice, founder and CEO of Fair Trade USA, described it as a “global movement of brands like Madewell and amazing producers line Saitex and tens of millions of consumers who are increasingly looking for products that are consistent with their values, products that reflect their interest in a better world and a more sustainable world.”

“Fair Trade is a philosophy, it’s a movement, it’s an expression of ethical trading and sustainable sourcing,” Rice said. “Fair Trade is also a standard–a 300-point checklist of compliance criteria that manufacturers like Saitex agree to comply with.”

In turn, these certified manufacturers get to sell on Fair Trade terms to some 1,400 brand and retail partners. Those partners in turn, agree to pay more money, Rice added.

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“The essence of Fair Trade is the notion that sustainability and responsibility needs to be rewarded,” he said. “The other hallmark of Fair Trade is our certification,” a seal that is imprinted in jeans, for example, “and that activates the consumer.”

Rice said the latest surveys have shown that 63 percent of U.S. consumers know the Fair Trade label. In practice Fair Trade also means better livelihoods for workers, better working conditions and more respect for workers, he added.

Sanjeev Bahl, founder and CEO of denim manufacturer Saitex International, said social justice and inclusivity have never been raised to such a high level, but there are few tools to integrate these goals .

“Fair Trade is a tool that empowers businesses to be a force for good and allows inclusivity at the highest degree,” Bahl said.

He noted that the 2 percent premium that is paid to Saitex by brands because it is Fair Trade certified goes directly into the hands of the workers, who, according to Rice, have a system in place to decide how it is distributed. Since the partnership between Saitex and Madewell began, workers have received $700,000, which has been utilized for healthcare, education and well-being, Bahl said.

“It’s collapsed the walls…the relationship between the brand and consumer, the relationship between the brand and the factory,” he said. “There’s now direct transparency” between the factory and the consumer. “For us, it’s given a voice of equality and inclusivity to our workforce and has built a relationship between our workers and Madewell.”

Liz Hershfield, senior vice president of sourcing and supply chain at Madewell, said the aspect of being able to contribute to workers’ supplemental income was a key reason Madewell chose to work with Fair trade over other socially conscious organizations when the brand decided it wanted to go that route.

In addition, Fair Trade’s focus on workplace safety and “an environment where the workers can have a voice and air a grievance and not be afraid of retaliation,” was another vital reason, Hershfield said.

“By partnering with Fair Trade and factories like Saitex, we are able to support safer, more sustainable factories that align with our brand values,” she said.

In 2019, Madewell rolled out it first Fair Trade denim program with Saitex that has been successful in many levels, Hershfield noted.

Rice said the 10-year-old Fair Trade apparel program has reached more than 100 factories in 12 countries. It is working with 120,000 workers, mostly women, “but in the global picture of the apparel industry we’re just getting started.”

“What encourages me in the mission to transform the apparel industry, is when I hear back from factory owners that Fair Trade is not just good for the worker, but it’s also good for the factory. It’s increasing retention, it’s lowering recruitment and training costs, it’s helping the factory ensure more stable commercial relationships with buyers,” he said.