How to Actually Verify That Your Clothes Are Fair Trade

Sustainability is having a moment. With Everlane’s recent promise to eliminate all virgin plastic within its walls by 2021 and Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex herself, choosing to wear sustainable clothing designers while on tour in Australia, conscious consumerism is everywhere. But as people start paying attention to fashion’s effect on the planet, Fair Trade USA is making sure ethical purchasing doesn’t stop at going green.

The nonprofit works to ensure that the farm and factory workers who produce the clothes we wear every single day are treated fairly. Since launching with coffee 20 years ago, the organization has helped generate more than $500 million in additional income for workers at over 1,300 brands worldwide. But there’s still more to be done, especially in apparel.

Maya Spaull, Fair Trade’s VP of Apparel and Home Goods, says she watched the clothing industry shift its mindset with the rise of conscious consumption. “Once we started to tell companies that there’s a pair of hands, there’s a woman, a mother, a sister, an aunt, who’s making these clothes every day for you and that there’s an opportunity to participate in something like Fair Trade to support better working conditions and also better pay via the Fair Trade premium, we really started to get some incredible hits,” Spaull says. “It’s no longer acceptable to offer bad-quality products that have no sustainability story.”

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Since Fair Trade launched its Apparel and Home Goods program five years ago, brands like Patagonia, Athleta, West Elm, Pottery Barn, and, most recently, Madewell and J.Crew have all made commitments to Fair Trade (for the full list of partners, visit Certified clothing lines are marked by a signature label to make it easy for consumers to spot ethically sourced and responsibly made products. “The companies doing sustainability right all share one specific quality,” Spaull says. “They’re building responsible sourcing into their DNA. When you look at a Patagonia or a West Elm, it’s not just dabbling. They’ve stood up and said, ‘X percentage of our products are going to be Fair Trade.’ For Patagonia, they’re basically taking Fair Trade as far as possible across every factory.”

Patagonia has Fair Trade-certified its entire fleece line and recently introduced the world’s first Fair Trade wet suits. The company is currently leading the market; Spaull hopes this sort of “conscious capitalism” marks a clear shift away from fast fashion. “A personal mission of mine is to [get consumers to] think about what we’re doing if we support fast fashion. Remember that if you purchase something that’s cheap, like a $5 T-shirt, there’s no way that that could have been made in a responsible way, [no way] that someone at the other end received a fair wage for that day of work,” Spaull says.

Courtesy Patagonia

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Consumers need to watch out for misleading claims, says Spaull, and should know that a high price doesn’t necessarily translate to responsibly made. The easiest way to make sure a product is actually Fair Trade certified? Look for the label. “Third party verification is crucial,” Spaull says. “Purchasing certified products is your guarantee that you’re supporting better livelihoods, safer working conditions, and protections of the planet.”

Spaull has her sights set on high fashion. “I think there’s a real opportunity for luxury clothing brands and designers to support Fair Trade and ensure that we’re there making their clothes,” she says. “I ask consumers to be mindful of where they’re purchasing and how they’re voting with their dollars.”

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