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Ethical Fashion, Fair Trade, and All the Controversy In Between
We added some new vendors to our ethical fashion page.
But as consumer demand grows (yippee!), sometimes-opposing forces pull at the fair trade movement. It’s a time of change for fair trade—which, as usual, can result in positive and negative effects. Right now, I’d say the verdict is still out. Fair Trade USA (fairly recently split from Fairtrade International) is still very much in the process of figuring out what it stands for.
Here’s a bit of what’s going on: Fair trade’s initial goal was to empower underdeveloped communities by providing fair wages and safe working conditions. But as the federations behind fair trade (which are more economically and politically driven than you might think) want to increase their supply of fair trade–labeled merchandise, they’re turning to large corporations. While there’s still a focus on ethical production, the focus is shifting away from empowering the men, women, and communities of the underdeveloped world. And many worry that as corporations have more of a voice in fair trade, smaller businesses will suffer. Some also worry that the changes could cause fair trade to go from being something that helps to something that does not harm.
So what’s it mean for consumers? There are many elements at work: human rights, economic development, and small vs. large business—plus the classics, supply and demand. How you respond depends on your motives and priorities, but as usual it’s important to know what you’re getting. Fair trade certification will likely always mean that no slave labor was involved in creating a product. But if you’re not a fan of big business or you want to be certain your purchases empower people, the certification may start to irk you more and more.
But fear not, fair trade is not the only way to be an ethical shopper. While fair trade may face turmoil, ethical options are becoming increasingly available (and fashionable and affordable!). Our ethical fashion page has many ethical options that aren’t fair trade certified. Ethix Merch points out the ethical standards of unions that have been producing clothes in the US for generations (unions that may be threatened by the expansion of fair trade–certification—read their extensive look at this topic here and here).
For me, ethical fashion is about people. I want people to be empowered by the purchases I make, and I absolutely never want people marginalized or hurt by what I buy. If this can all be done through a larger corporation, that’s fine by me—but history shows that small business tend to have the most positive impact.