Fair Trade and the Fashion Industry

I was first introduced to the concept of fair trade in a first year global studies class; I was one of two hundred wide-eyed optimists, all-aspiring to change the world with little to no concept of our role in global inequality.  In an attempt at creating a foundation for leaning about global trade and inequality our professor asked us to locate the “made in…” tag on a piece of clothing. Without exception every student’s hand raised when he asked “ is your clothing made in China”?

The average Canadian spends an average of $2450 on clothing each year (1). The majority of this money supports an industry that functions to exploit people in the global south for profit. The relationship between consumer choice in fashion and the economic, social and health of these workers is obscure and complicated at best. Fair trade was born out of the anti-globalization movement as a response to barriers to human dignity and equality created through global trade (2). Fair trade is market driven social justice that contributes to an alternative model of economic development. It encompasses an ethical, equitable and fair approach to all labor and trade practices, involving consumers, workers, manufacturers, retailers, and government.

The fashion industry is slowly starting to adapt to this growing trend in consumer choice. In our globalized culture, social media makes it easier for consumers to become educated on the conditions of garment workers overseas. Stories of nearly 300 Pakistani workers-many of them children- dying in two separate factory fires in the same night are hard to ignore (3). The Clean Clothes Campaign, which empowers and supports workers to improve their working conditions, estimates that in Bangladesh alone, over 700 workers have died in factory fires in the last 10 years (4). These fires (and the working conditions that lead to them) are indirectly caused by consumer choices!

It is easier now more than ever to become educated fashion consumers, which has resulted in more options as individuals stand up against the inhumane exploitation of people. Feeling good about what we put on our body expands beyond ourselves when we become educated. Fair trade fashion is emerging and changing just as quickly as our style choices, which means that in order to keep our choices ethical, we must understand the fundamental ways fashion and fair-trade intersect.

Fashion is a field of innovators. So its no surprise that the industry is beginning to develop innovative solutions for addressing the complex social, economic and environmental problems it is apart of. The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) is such an example. This extremely comprehensive standard draws stark connections between social and environmental responsibility, supporting designers, manufacturers, retailers and consumers to strengthen these connections through their own innovative practices (5).  Countless organizations like Fashion Takes Action (6), The Clean Clothes Campaign and the Ethical Fashion Forum (7) are being birthed through this growing consciousness, working to create a holistic industry that lives on, rather than negates, the creative impulse that is at the core of fashion.


(1) Industry Canada: http://www.ic.gc.ca/eic/site/ocabc.nsf/eng/ca02117.html#a91

(2) Defining the Anti-Globalization Movement:http://www.democracyuprising.com/2007/04/anti-globalization-movement/

(3) The Economist:http://www.economist.com/blogs/banyan/2012/12/garment-factory-fires

(4) The Clean Clothes Campaign:http://www.cleanclothes.org/about-us

(5) Global Organic Textile Standard: http://www.global-standard.org/the-standard.html

(6) Fashion Takes Action: http://www.fashiontakesaction.com

(7) The Ethical Fashion Forum: http://www.ethicalfashionforum.com/

Jen Holden is a graduate student at the University of Victoria. When not studying policy and practice in relation to global inequality, gender, violence and indigenous solidarity, Jen can be found obsessing over fashion.