It’s been a year since I started living a Fairtrade life and this is what I’ve learned so far— it’s impossible to live within the parameters of Fairtrade, because the origin of so many products is unknown. Even the companies or agencies at the head of the chain don’t always know where their products originate. Case in point: in the Jan. 5 New York Times article: “Abuses at Suppliers of Uniforms,” I read that one of the world’s biggest clothing buyers, the United States government, doesn’t know where their uniforms are made.
“Federal agencies rarely know what factories make their clothes, much less require audits of them, according to interviews with procurement officials and industry experts. The agencies, they added, exert less oversight of foreign suppliers than many retailers do.”
Why does this matter? In Bangladesh, shirts with Marine Corps logos are made at DK Knitwear, where child laborers make up one-third of the workforce. And at Zongtex Garment Manufacturing in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where clothing is made for the Army and Air Force, there are almost two dozen underage workers.
“Sometimes people soil themselves at their sewing machines,” one worker said, because of restrictions on bathroom breaks.”
You’d think this track record would be enough for the government to improve its procurement policies, but no. In the last year, the American government has ordered more clothing than ever from Bangladesh.
This is what upsets me most. How people can just turn a blind eye to the situation. How people can keep consuming the cheapest toys, clothes and technology with no thought to how it’s made or who makes it. Which brings me to the second thing I’ve learned this year. Excessive consumerism is at the root of the sweatshop problem. As long as people demand $2.99 t-shirts, there will be child labor. As long as people frequent dollar stores, there will be child and sweatshop labor. As long as people want more than they need, and as long as retailers put profits ahead of ethics, there will be factory fires like the one at Tazreen factory in Bangladesh a year ago, that killed 112 workers.
I know that my efforts to purchase fairly made products are as futile as filling a swimming pool with a measuring cup, that I am part of a small yet dedicated minority. But the tide is changing, especially in the United Kingdom where there are 500 Fairtrade towns, 118 Fairtrade Universities, 6,000 Fairtrade churches, and 4,000 Fairtrade schools.
I also see hope in the fact that there was a 13 percent increase in the number of farmers and workers in Fairtrade in 2011. A study produced by Fairtrade International (www.fairtrade.net )–
“Monitoring the Scope and Benefits of Fairtrade 2012” shows some positive trends:
- There are 1.24 million farmers and workers involved in Fairtrade
- 68 countries have Fairtrade certification
- There are 991 Fairtrade certified producer organizations in 66 countries
- Women make up 25 percent of farmers and workers in Fairtrade
Not all the news is good. At this point, it’s not possible to determine exactly how much money reaches Fairtrade producers. And little research has been done on the impact of Fairtrade. Still, small studies reveal enormous benefits for Fairtrade producers. One example, in this study looked at Fairtrade flower farms in Ecuador and East Africa. Here, workers say that Fairtrade helps develop their skills which in turn leads to empowerment. They have the opportunity to manage meetings and assemblies, learn skills in accounting, project management, public speaking, leadership, and computer literacy. They receive housing credits to reduce their dependence on landlords, and valuable scholarships for their children’s education as well as credits for investment.
Even though there are problems and uncertainties within Fairtrade, I’m still a supporter. I’m not as naïve as I was a year ago, when I embarked on this journey. I realize that Fairtrade is one of many choices when it comes to ethical consumerism. There are socially responsible companies like Whole Foods, Starbucks and The Body Shop, where Fairtrade products are sourced and there is an emphasis on sustainability. You can sift through used clothes at Goodwill or at a vintage store, and you can get items repaired instead of throwing them out and buying new.
The zipper in my winter coat broke a week before Christmas. I brought it to a seamstress who replaced it for forty dollars, a fraction of the cost of a new coat. A couple days later, the zipper in one of my boots broke. I brought it to a shoe repair place that also redid the heels in both boots. Total cost: sixty dollars and my boots are like new.
For 2014, I plant to continue on my Fairtrade journey, and I will also shop vintage, shop local, buy only what I need, and buy good quality, so that it will be worth fixing. I know I won’t change the world, but I also know that small steps can lead to bigger ones. I just hope it doesn’t take a major disaster in a factory to make people modify their spending habits.