What Is Fair Trade Clothing and Why Should We Care?

Fair trade clothing design sketch

What Is Fair Trade Clothing and Why Should We Care?

Nowadays, we’re lucky enough to have free trade all around us, albeit the rise in populism has leant it some challenges recently. Free trade has resulted in amazing innovations. It has improved many people’s lives. But it has also led to the gradual moving of manufacturing to poorer developing countries and the exploitation of their workers.

Back in the 40s in the States, and the 50s in the UK, where Oxfam started selling products made by Chinese refugees, initiatives started popping up to treat and pay workers fairly. And the fair trade movement was born. But what is fair trade clothing, and why should we actually care?

What is Fair Trade?

Fair trade is a term used a lot but we don’t often stop to think about what it means. 

Put simply, the fair trade movement ensures that manufacturers and workers can achieve sustainable trade relationships by being treated and paid fairly. This enables everyone in a company’s production chain to work in ethical conditions and to improve their livelihoods. 

It means that child labour is never used, and it also takes the environment into consideration.

Fair trade is often achieved by removing intermediaries and by buying products and raw materials directly from the people who create them. When you pay for a fair trade product, you can be sure that a fair portion will go to the producers, enabling them to afford things that we take for granted like a decent home, healthcare, food, and education.

The movement focuses primarily on exported products from developing countries to developed countries, but it can also be found domestically.

The benefits of buying fair trade include that:

  • Enough money will go to each and every participant in the chain.
  • No workers have been exploited or forced to work to manufacture a product.
  • No child labour has been used.
  • The working conditions throughout the production chain are lawful.
  • You are helping to protect the environment.
  • You are promoting the improvement of the economy in underdeveloped countries.
  • You are supporting a transparent, clear communication between suppliers, producers, and buyers, where everyone gets to participate in decision-making.
  • You are buying a top-quality product.

To learn more about where our clothes are made, see Where do clothing brands manufacture?

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Photo by Los Muertos Crew from Pexels

What is Fair Trade Clothing?

In today’s world, where fast fashion is king, many people who work in the clothing industry are sadly exploited and underpaid. Fair trade in fashion was born to prevent this from happening.

The fair trade movement in the fashion industry provides a set of guidelines for clothing manufacturing to ensure that manufacturers and factory workers work in ethical conditions and are treated and paid fairly.

Fair trade clothing is clothing that was produced in accordance with strict rules and ethical standards, with the best interest of the workers involved in mind. Which means that you can have peace of mind that your favourite threads were created by someone fairly recompensed for their work.

Fair trade fashion brands have to earn certification by a fair trade organisation and must follow strict guidelines to do so. By purchasing a piece of clothing from a fair trade fashion brand, you can be sure the environment has been protected in the process.

The UK needs fair trade clothing too

There are many studies on fair trade fashion and it is widely believed that only underdeveloped countries exploit their employees. But a study by the University of Nottingham’s Rights Lab and De Montfort University performed in the UK proved that to be untrue.

It showed that 56% of garment workers were paid below the national minimum wage; they work without contracts, holiday or sick pay and are often forced to work under intense and cruel conditions. It happens on our doorstep too!

Every worker in every industry, in every country, deserves to be paid fairly for the work done.  Fair trade certification means that this happens.

As consumers, you choose what you buy. And as many fashion brands are now fair trade certified and support the workers involved in their supply chains, you can make an impact by choosing well.

Look out for brands like Patagonia, Eileen Fisher, Gap, J Crew and Mountain Equipment to get started.

Fair trade label

The difference between fair trade and Fairtrade

So what’s the difference between fair trade and Fairtrade? Fair trade represents the movement that enables every worker to be treated and paid fairly. Fairtrade is a trademark term referring to Fairtrade International – an organisation whose aim is to help workers around the globe by implementing standards and guidelines for brands to follow, thus providing Fairtrade certifications for different products. There are various fair trade bodies.

WFTO Principles

WFTO logo

The largest and best-known fair trade organisation is WFTO (World Fair Trade Organization). It comprises different organisations that are committed to treating workers around the world with respect and fair pay.

WFTO verifies and monitors every single company that wants to become a member of the organisation, ensuring that products and suppliers comply with their core principles:

  • Creating Opportunities for Economically Disadvantaged Producers
  • Transparency and Accountability
  • Fair Trading Practices
  • Fair Payment including fair prices and fair wages
  • Ensuring No Child Labour or Forced Labour
  • Commitment to Non-Discrimination, Gender Equity, Women’s Economic Empowerment, and Freedom of Association
  • Ensuring Good Working Conditions
  • Providing Capacity Building, developing skills, capabilities and access to markets
  • Promoting Ethical Trade
  • Respect for the Environment

Fair Wear Foundation Principles

Fair Wear logo

While fair trade principles apply to a huge range of products, there are a number of organizations that work specifically with fair trade clothing. The Fair Wear Foundation is focused on fair treatment of workers in the garment industry, supporting the rights of sewers/seamstresses, cutters, and trimmers to work in safe, dignified, fairly paid employment.

The over 140 member brands of the Fair Wear foundation are committed to ensuring fair and ethical production processes in fashion, providing good jobs for people who make clothing, and ethical fashion for the people who buy it.

Fair Wear brands to watch out for include Jack Wolfskin, Nudie Jeans, Acne Studios, Mammut, Rab, Marc O’Polo and Suitsupply.

Eco-Friendly Textile Production

Fair trade clothing in the fashion industry
Photo by Ron Lach from Pexels

Like so many other products, the production of textiles used in clothing can have a harmful impact on the environment. Textiles are often produced with un-sustainable agricultural methods, and then processed with chemicals that are harmful to the environment and to the workers who use them.

Programs like GOTS, Better Cotton, and Oeko-tex are working to ensure that cotton and other textiles are produced in a way that is better for the environment, better for the textile worker, and better for the end wearer. See our article on GOTS certified cotton for more information.

Look out for labels such as Seasalt, People Tree, Frugi, Nomads Clothing, OVS, Marks & Spencers and Levi’s.

Why Should Consumers Care About Fair Trade Fashion?

It’s obvious that consumers don’t want people or the environment to suffer just so that they can wear nice clothes. And we don’t need to purchase clothing that has long-term harmful effects for everyone who created it. 

It can sometimes be a bit of a challenge though to find fair trade clothing, and fair trade fashion can cost more. So why is fair trade clothing worth the extra cost and effort?

1. Reduces global poverty and inequality

Not only is there is a tremendous wealth gap in the modern world, but too often, impoverished areas are also heavily polluted, with people there having reduced access to resources and opportunities. Many fast fashion brands keep consumer prices low by perpetuating unfair and exploitive labour practices in other parts of the world.

Spending more on your clothing, and making sure that your purchase actually benefits the people who make your clothes, you’re helping to improve living conditions for those who need it most and avoiding child labour at the same time.

2. Better for the environment

The rules and standards in fair trade workplaces protect workers, often meaning eliminating hazardous chemicals and reducing the use of harmful pesticides and herbicides when creating raw materials.

Many fair trade standards include environmental protections in their certification process, so they are protecting workers and the environment at the same time. As we know, environmental impacts affect all of us around the world, so well worth the investment.

3. Supports transparency

Consumers increasingly want to know more about the origins of their clothing. Asking important questions about where products and materials came from, who made them, how they were processed, and what the impacts are, has provoked brands to become more honest and transparent with their customers. Even for those not interested in fair trade and ethical fashion, access to this kind of information and increased transparency is important and benefits us all.

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Photo by Monstera from Pexels

4. Better for you

When clothes and fabrics are made with fewer harmful chemicals, they’re quite simply less toxic, better for not only your skin but your hormone balance and body overall.

Fashion Is About Expression

It’s often said that people express themselves through their clothing. To express your attitudes towards equality, respect, fairness, and the environment, try buying fair trade products.  Let fashion brands know that the era of treating workers unfairly is on its way out.


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