Fair Trade: USA vs. Europe

Is the Fair Trade movement doing better in Europe than in the United States?

fair trade cottonThe question came up during an interesting conversation I had recently with a representative from the UK-based “Bags of Ethics” fair trade tote bag company. She insisted that while it is still difficult to find sweatshop-free and fairly traded merchandise in the United States, the situation is very different in Western Europe, where a wide variety of fair trade certified products are available on the market.

The idea–that such a large region of the world is suddenly awash in fair trade goods–sounded amazing to me, but perhaps a bit too good to be true. So I decided to do some internet sleuthing about the state of ethically-produced goods in Europe.

I started by visiting, homepage of the most famous department store in London. (If fair trade merch really is taking hold in Western Europe, it would surely be sold at Harrods, right?) As it happens, though, the front page links to the latest Ralph Lauren collection. Yes, that’s Polo Ralph Lauren, the American design company whose “responsible shopper profile” at Green America looks a lot like the other garment industry corporate giantsfull of allegations and business decisions that speed up, rather than slow down, the global “race to the bottom.” Certainly no mention of fair trade. Looks like business as usual at Harrod’s.

My next step was to compare the websites of TransfairUSA (Fair Trade USA), with its global parent organization, the Fairtrade Labeling Organizations International (FLO). The list of fair trade certified products is the same on both sites, with one very interesting exception: cotton. The FLO website lists hundreds of traders and producers of fair trade certified “seed cotton,” whereas TransfairUSA (Fair Trade USA) lists none. So, is it possible that consumers in other parts of the world are now easily able to purchase clothes made from fair trade cotton?

To try and answer that question, I googled “fair trade clothing,” in both Google and Google UK search engines. This excercise is complicated by the fact that it is the cotton that gets certified, not the process of cutting and sewing the cotton into finished garments. In other words, neither Transfair (Fair Trade USA) nor FLO certifies fair trade apparel. So, at this point in the evolution of fair trade, it’s up to consumers to judge each “fair trade” claim on its own merits, based on the information provided by the company.

That said, it does definitely seem to me that the fair trade options in England are much more extensive than the American-based options, and also more likely to claim that their cotton, at least, is FLO certified. Take a look at a few of these UK-based websites with a “fair trade” claim.

The fashions available on these sites seem pretty mainstream, which suggests to me that they’re appealing to the mainstream consumer in the UK, rather than someone looking for something “ethnic.” Of course, if fair trade merch is really going to take off, it will need to compete both in terms of price AND fashion.

Stateside, Fair Indigo definitely holds its own. And, in what looks to be very exciting news, they say they are working with Transfair (Fair Trade USA) on a pilot project to certify some of their finished products, which would be a huge leap forward.

Personally, I can’t wait until that starts to happen. As time goes on, please keep checking back with us as we expand our fair trade options and offer more information about how to distinguish fair trade superstars from fair trade pretenders. In the meantime, it’s important to remember that Union Made in USA merchandise is still the platinum standard for consumers in the United States. With the Union label, you’re supporting local economies, helping maintain middle class manufacturing jobs, and helping to stop the race to the bottom on global labor conditions.

Why not order some Union Made T-shirts for your organization right now?

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