Fair Trade or Free Trade: Are You Promoting Unethical Labor Practices?

Hannah Ellefritz

Ralph Lauren (accused of using unethical labor practices) displays their latest collection at Macy's.

Hannah Ellefritz

Disclaimer: The male population of M-A was left out of the surveys mentioned in this article simply because the majorities of guys’ wardrobes are purchased by their mothers and their opinions regarding clothing in general are limited.

As teenage girls, we rave about stores like Forever21, Target, H&M, and Old Navy, which sell fashionable clothes for cheap prices. But we hardly ever wonder how these prices became so low because our focus is on staying in fashion without breaking the bank. But there’s a scary secret our favorite stores are keeping from us.

The truth is, many of our favorite companies use dirty sweatshops, child labor, and underpaid workers to produce their clothing.

For the past couple of weeks, I wandered M-A’s campus, asking female students about their shopping habits. A rough 95% of the girls I interviewed admitted to buying clothes without thinking about their production. The other 5% said they did think about it, and of this 5%, only a few said that knowing where clothes came from did not affect their decision to buy said clothes.

“I don’t think a lot of people are aware [of the use of sweatshops behind fashionable products],” said senior Elizabeth Sherwin, co-president of the Save Every Slave Club at M-A. “A lot of people have heard of sweatshops, but it’s just so hard to know where your stuff comes from. It’s much easier to just buy the clothes wherever you want to buy them because there are so few stores that actually advertise, ‘We’re Sweatshop-Free.’”

This raised a “what if?” If clothes were actually advertised as Fair Trade* versus non-Fair Trade, would teenage girls (accustomed to buying cheap, fashion-forward products made through unethical labor practices) change their shopping habits?

This question can be compared to if food was advertised as organic, would we (accustomed to buying cheap, generally unhealthy food) change our eating habits? So far, in regards to food, the answer seems to be “yes.”

So the question regarding shopping habits was rephrased. Soon after conducting the first interview, I asked nearly 100 females around the entire MA campus to make a decision. I presented them with the option to buy a $40 shirt (advertised as Fair Trade) or essentially the same exact shirt (same style, same quality) for $10. In this situation, they were aware that the $40 shirt was made Fair Trade and that the $10 shirt was made either through sweatshops, slavery, or child labor.

Roughly two thirds of the girls surveyed chose the less expensive shirt over the Fair Trade one. The fact that many of their favorite companies use dirty sweatshops, child labor, and underpaid workers in the making of their clothing did not seem to strike a chord with most of the girls interviewed.

“Because we’re students, we always want to go for the cheaper shirt,” said senior Sydney Young, co-president of the Save Every Slave club. “I think right now Fair Trade is in its beginning stages and it’s going through the same sort of thing organic stuff went through when organic stuff was more expensive. It’s kind of a slow movement that way.”

Though its start has been slow, Young and Sherwin have hope for the movement. They expressed disappointment in the results of the survey, but understand that Fair Trade is a growing issue that few students understand. Once understanding of the issue increases, Young and Sherwin hope that the ratio will improve.

Brands also do not advertise themselves “becoming Fair Trade” or “moving toward being a Fair Trade brand,” because, by default, these brands would be admitting they are suspicious of the labor practices behind their clothing.

“A lot of what’s going on right now is not so much figuring out if the clothing is Fair Trade, because there is probably an issue somewhere along the line,” explained Young. “It’s actually demanding that the companies start investigating what’s going on behind the scenes.”

It would be easy to suggest keeping your eyes peeled for Fair Trade clothing instead of buying non-Fair Trade, but it is not that easy. Not only do clothing stores keep the production of their clothes a secret, but Fair Trade clothing is generally expensive.

Even if you were willing to pay $40 for a Fair Trade shirt, you would have to buy it online because very few stores in the area are certified Fair Trade. On top of that, the majority of clothing made 100% ethically (even Young and Sherwin admit) is either excessively plain, ugly, or “gift-y.” To make matters worse, the production of Fair Trade cotton is extremely limited, so brands do not have enough material to be Fair Trade lines.

So in this case, what can be done? Thankfully, in the United Kingdom, the Fair Trade process is moving along slowly, but surely, and is significantly more developed than that here in the US. People Tree, a Fair Trade clothing line, first originated in Japan and then spread to the UK and is currently being helped along by style icon Emma Watson. American Apparel and Tom’s shoes are other Fair Trade organizations currently worn by students on campus, proving their relative fashionableness. Another idea to reduce the impact of sweatshops and child labor is to purchase items at thrift stores or wear hand-me-downs from friends and family. This way, the item was bought from the company only once, minimally supporting unethical labor.

Any further questions? Contact Elizabeth Sherwin or Sydney Young (or better yet, join Save Every Slave which is working toward incorporating the issue of Fair Trade clothing into their club)!

Shop Fair Trade at www.peopletree.com and take action locally with Half Moon Bay’s Not For Sale Campaign at http://www.notforsalecampaign.org/.

*Fair Trade is a “certification process” similar to that of certified organic goods. There are roughly 10 qualifications to becoming “Fair Trade certified.” About half of these qualifications regard healthy land treatment and the use of organic materials, and the other regards fair labor practices. Thus, clothing made in sweatshops is not fair trade, nor is clothing made by children, underpaid workers, or forced laborers (slaves).

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3 Responses to “Fair Trade or Free Trade: Are You Promoting Unethical Labor Practices?”

  1. Allison on October 17th, 2011 9:48 pm

    Clear and well researched article. Nice job!

  2. hellefritz on February 19th, 2012 12:40 pm

    Breaking News!! One of my favorite shops recently came out with a NotForSale line (mentioned in this article)!!
    It’s so encouraging to see slavery awareness spread and affect well known, fashion forward clothing shops!!! Check out http://www.us.allsaints.com/not_for_sale/ to shop fair trade! I cannot wait until they further develop this line –I definitely plan to purchase some of their clothing to support the movement!

  3. hellefritz on February 19th, 2012 12:40 pm

    (Disclaimer: I am not affiliated with All Saints clothing)