True Cost of Fast Fashion

29 08 2013

Summer has been beautiful in Seattle this year – and I’ve been taking advantage of it.  My month turned into almost two months – I just couldn’t bring myself back to the computer.  But now I’m refreshed and ready to go again.

We’ve often had people question why organic sofas cost “so much” – and I’ll address that next week.  This week let’s talk about what has become known as “fast fashion” – the idea of moving the newest trends from the catwalk to the store quickly to capture the newest design trends.  And the consumers are responding:   A Cambridge University study[1] found that  people were buying a third more clothes in 2006 than they were in 2002, and women have four times as many clothes in their wardrobe than they did in 1980.  And they get

rid of a similar amount.   oscar-wilde-FAST-FASHION-quotes

Fast fashion is all about having trendy, cutting-edge looks NOW  – and at bargain prices.  Brands began competing against each other for market share by introducing more lines per year at lower costs, culminating in a situation where “fashion houses now offer up to 18 collections a year’ and the low cost, so called ‘value end’ is ‘booming; doubling in size in just 5 years.”[2]

So who’s paying for this fast fashion?

Turns out we all are.

Elizabeth Cline,  author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost Of Cheap Fashion, once described buying a pair of shoes at Kmart:  “I remember that the shoes just smelled toxic, like there were fumes coming off of them. That made me wonder what the environmental impact of what I was doing was.”[3]

The same thing happens to me when I pick up a cute whatever and then quickly put it down when I catch its chemical-y smell. What is the fast fashion we love actually made of?

Some really bad stuff, it turns out.

Greenpeace released a report entitled Toxic Threads[4] about the chemicals found in apparel produced by major brands (such as Gap, Levis, Mango, Calvin Klein, Zara and H&M).  They tested 141 articles of clothing they bought in 29 different countries – and all the articles tested contained either phthalates, nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs) or azo dyes  –  and sometimes all three.  These chemicals are found in  clothing and are available to our bodies when worn next to the skin:

  • I think you know some of the health concerns regarding phthalates and hormone disruptors since there has been lots in the media about Bisphenol A (a synthetic estrogen) – surprisingly a component in textile processing.  A brand new study has linked phthalates to increased insulin resistance in teenagers, a condition that can lead to Type 2 diabetes.[5]
  • Nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs) are a group of chemicals that mimic the human hormone estrogen.  NPEs are highly toxic to aquatic life, degrade into a long-lived chemical that builds up in the food chain, and may harm reproduction and development in humans.   Both the EU and Canada have passed laws regulating the use of NPEs.
  • And azo dyes can break down into amines which cause cancer – these too have been regulated in the EU and elsewhere around the world.

These chemicals were found in clothing we put on without a second thought, but they are available to our bodies when worn next to the skin – which is a permeable membrane.  Dermal contact is a major route of exposure for these chemicals.

On top of the effects to our personal health, the environment takes a beating too:  the textile industry is the #1 industrial polluter of water on the planet, dumping untreated effluent (containing a witches’ brew of toxic chemicals) into our groundwater.  And we’re all downstream.

Garment Workers 02a (Reuters)     Most consumers still buy their clothes without thinking about the workers. Sadly, the price of cheap fashion today is slave labor and inhumane working conditions.

“Buyers pressure factories to deliver quality products with ever-shorter lead times. Most factories just don’t have the tools and expertise to manage this effectively, so they put the squeeze on the workers. It’s the only margin they have to play with.”[6]

A Sri Lankan factory owner interviewed by Oxfam demonstrates the pressure they are now under: “Last year the deadlines were about 90 days… [This year] the deadlines for delivery are about 60 days. Sometimes even 45… They have drastically come down.”[7]

The Clean Clothes Campaign, which tries to improve working conditions in the global garment industry, describes similar instances with garment workers in China: “We have endless overtime in the peak season and we sit working non-stop for 13 to 14 hours a day.  It’s like this every day – we sew and sew without a break until our arms feel sore and stiff.”

The collapse of the garment factory Rana Plaza in
Bangladesh in April, 2013 killed 1,129 people – and was the last in a long series of garment factory accidents that have killed over 2,000 garment workers since 2005[8].   Warnings not to use the building were ignored and workers were ordered to return or lose their jobs.  Even Pope Francis spoke out against the working conditions in the factory:

“A headline that really struck me on the day of the tragedy in Bangladesh was ‘Living on 38 euros a month’. That is what the people who died were being paid. This is called slave labour.”

The increase in the amount of clothes people consume also has consequences for the environment. More clothing is shipped and flown from the Far East to Europe than ever before and the life cycle of these garments is decreasing.   National Geographic says that clothing represents 5% of total garbage in landfills [9]– and in North America, that’s about 68 lbs. of waste per household per year.  And if that clothing is made of synthetics, they’ll be around long, long after we’re gone, leaching their chemicals into our groundwater.  So one thing you can do to help the environment is to buy natural fibers.   Here’s a video produced by Icebreaker Merino, which shows what happens to a t-shirt made of Merino wool, after just 6 months:

The sad fact is that fast doesn’t mean free – and the costs are high.






[6] “Trading Away Our Rights”, Oxfam,  2004;




Fair Trade in jeopardy

9 03 2012

 Equal Exchange was founded in 1986 to support authentic fair trade by challenging  the existing trade model, which favored large plantations, agri-business, and multi-national corporations; to support small farmers; and to connect consumers and producers through information, education, and the exchange of products in the marketplace.

With the founding, they joined a growing movement of small farmers, alternative traders (ATOs), religious organizations, and non-profits throughout the world with like-minded principles and objectives.  The U.S. consumer co-operative movement has been an integral part of this movement.  Underlying Equal Exchange’s work is the belief that only through organization can small farmers survive and thrive.  The cooperative model has been essential for building this model of change.  From their website: the  founders envisioned a food system that empowers farmers and consumers, supports small farmer co-ops, and uses sustainable farming methods. They started with fairly traded coffee from Nicaragua and didn’t look back.

During the 1990’s, Equal Exchange joined with a number of other organizations to create the certifying agency, TransFair USA (now Fair Trade USA).  The goal was to create a mechanism, in a complex marketplace, to ensure that a company’s products were providing social, economic and environmental impact for the small farmer organizations that grew them.  With a third party certifier, it was hoped that consumers would have more confidence in their purchases without needing to background check every brand and product.  This turned out to be good business and Fair Trade USA grew as a result.

Deep controversies in the Fair Trade movement have been simmering for over a decade.  As time  passed, Fair Trade USA began to take on a life of its own.  Rather than confine itself to its purpose as a certifying agency, collecting fees from industries that used its seal and monitoring them to ensure that Fair Trade practices were being met, Fair Trade USA soon developed its own vision.  “Quantity over Quality”, “Breadth over Depth”, and other qualifiers came to be used to describe Fair Trade USA’s vision of a world in which vast numbers of products throughout the grocery store could be certified Fair Trade, in as fast a manner as possible.

Their problem was supply.  Working with small farmer organizations can be challenging and time-consuming.  These organizations don’t have the same access to market, credit, infrastructure, and technology that large plantations generally do.  Over the opposition of the ATOs, farmer organizations, and a host of other Fair Trade advocates, Fair Trade USA and its umbrella organization FairTrade Labelling Organization (FLO) began certifying plantation tea, bananas, cut flowers, and other products with a set of different, less rigorous standards than those elaborated for small farmer organizations.

Soon, large corporations began to see value in certification as well.  They discovered that consumers would respect all of their products, even if only one or two were certified as Fair Trade  (this happens in fabric collections too).  Fair Trade USA rapidly began courting big businesses into the Fair Trade “family”, such as Chiquita, Dole, and Nestle.  The Fair Trade advocates protested, but  to no avail. Big business profits grew and, as more volume got certified, Fair Trade USA continued to grow as well.

Equal Exchange feels that all their advances are now in jeopardy, because Fair Trade USA  has left the international Fair Trade System (FLO International/FairTrade International), lowered  standards, eliminated farmers from their governance model, and invited large-scale plantations into coffee and all other commodities.  

Equal Exchange has recently launched the Stand with Small Farmers campaign for authentic Fair Trade in response to these actions by Fair Trade USA. They believe that small farmer cooperatives are the heart of Fair Trade and the engine of real grassroots development.

The following is from a press release we just received:

This is not Fair Trade and we are asking you to join with us in differentiating Fair Trade USA’s model from the authentic small farmer Fair Trade that we are collectively building.

Current happenings

These actions, and many others throughout the years, have created large-scale opposition against the certifiers and bad feelings have mounted about the lack of transparency, accountability, openness, and representation on the boards and within the committees of FLO International and Fair Trade USA.  Little has changed.  Until this year, when the growing rift finally reached a head:

It is time to withdraw support from TransFair USA/FairTrade USA products.  They do not represent Fair Trade.

What are we asking?

  1. Please ask your friends and work colleagues to sign our public statement: may sign as organizations and/or individuals.
  2. Please continue to educate yourselves and others about the issues brewing in the Fair Trade world.  For more information on Equal Exchange’s perspective on the differences between Authentic Fair Trade and what Fair Trade USA is doing, please read Rink Dickinson’s views here:  For a producer point of view, please read this:

We remain engaged with small farmers and with the international Fair Trade system.  We will keep you posted on events as they unfold. As always, thanks for your loyal support, your commitment, and for putting your values into action.

If you have any questions, please call Phyllis Robinson, Education & Campaigns Manager at Equal Exchange, at 774-776-7390.

Fair Trade – what does it mean?

13 10 2010

Trade issues raise a lot of hackles – and they’re complex, global in scope, subject to capricious trade agreements and governmental intervention.  According to Oxfam, trade is robbing poor people of a proper living, and keeps them trapped in poverty because the rules controlling trade heavily favor the rich nations that set the rules.  Rich countries and powerful corporations have captured a disproportionate share of the benefits of trade, leaving developing countries and poor people worse off.  Oxfam is working to ensure that countries change the way they trade.

The fair trade movement is about creating a better world – one where economy works for the people, not against them.  Basically,  what we see as fair trade has concentrated its efforts on the producer:    It recognizes that small producers lack a voice to achieve the best price for their products, and it aims to bring relief to these small producers.

October is Fair Trade month –  the theme is Every Purchase Matters:   “Every purchase matters means taking an extra moment to think about the impact your purchases will have – on your own wellbeing, on the people who produce the products and on the environment. “  As I said in last week’s blog, that’s a great thing to think about for each and every purchase you make  –  for lots of reasons.

Did you know that on average conventional coffee farmers receive $0.02 from the sale of each latte you buy?    If that coffee were Fair Trade coffee, the farmers would receive $0.12.  That small increase saves lives. (1)

I bet you’ve seen the FairTrade Mark on products recently.  Ever wonder what it really meant?   I mean, you can’t change the world unless you understand how it works, right?

Fair Trade hopes to alleviate poverty  and end the exploitation of workers through the three stakeholders:

1.      Producers,  who are generally located in impoverished countries

2.      organizations that trade, support and certify the products and

3.      Customers  who  buy the products.  (Yes, we do have a role to play in this poverty alleviation movement.)  We need to vote with our wallets and shop with our conscience.

Fair trade also may include policies that honor the local natural environment involved in the production, as well as the promotion of people-to-people connections, fairness and sustainability.

How does the fair trade movement work?  Basically it boils down to:

  • Better prices:  paying workers a fair wage for their labor and to paying producers a guaranteed minimum price for their agricultural products or a fair price for their handicrafts or other products
  • Decent working conditions:  The producer group agrees to provide good working conditions, safety procedures and adequate health standards for all workers.  Both the buyer and the producer group agree to promote human rights, especially those of women, children and people with disabilities
  • Sustainable development: Producers also agree to use environmentally sound production methods.  Harmful agrochemicals and GMOs are prohibited in favor of environmentally sustainable farming methods, but fair trade certified goods are not required to be “organic” because sometimes organic certification acts as a barrier to markets so Fair Trade doesn’t require it.

So how do we know if a product is Fair Trade?  Well, one way is for the company to tell us so –  and companies more and more often are making that claim, often with an environmental veneer attached.   Fair Trade provides fertile ground for greenwashing.  What if you don’t happen to believe the company?

Bet you saw this one coming:  there are also Fair Trade certification organizations, and they are of two types:

  • For organizational evaluation:   The World Fair Trade Organization (formerly IFAT) and the Fair Trade Federation (FTF) evaluate organizations for their full commitment to fair trade principles (no matter what kind of product they sell). FTF member organizations will have the Federation’s logo on materials related to their business.

The Fair Trade movement has always had its critics, who have said it is just a mechanism by which consumers in the rich world can feel better about themselves.  “It is a movement based around the consumption patterns of the rich and not the needs of the poor.”  A senior fellow of the Cato Institute,  Brink Lindsey, refers to Fair Trade as a “well intentioned, interventionist scheme…doomed to end in failure.” (2)

One facet of the problem is exemplified by the large multinational company, Nestle, which introduced its Partners Blend coffee, containing  Fair Trade coffee.   Nestle’s advertising in launching this coffee suggested that all its products are Fair Trade, when only 0.02% of its global purchases comply with Fair Trade criteria. (3)  But some say that doing something should be supported, while others  have noticed that Partners Blend coffee is often twice the price of non-Fair Trade coffee in the market, when it can be found!  This high price discourages purchase.   This has helped Nestle win a global internet poll for the world’s “least responsible company” in January 2005. (4)

Doing justice to the criticism of fair trade would be too long for this post, but if you’re interested you can read about it by clicking here and here – and you can probably find much more on the internet.

At this time, the only products in the United States which can be certified Fair Trade by TransFair USA are coffee and tea, spices and herbs, cocoa and chocolate, fresh and dried fruits and vegetables (including soy), cotton, flowers, sugar, rice, nuts, honey, olives and olive oil, quinoa , vanilla and wine.  The only manufactured product (if you don’t count wine)  is “sportsballs.”

Because I’m interested in fabric and how Fair Trade fits into the fabric industry,  let’s look at Fair Trade cotton, which is no different from conventional cotton, except that the farmer at the bottom of the supply chain receives a guaranteed price for his cotton which covers the cost of production and a premium for community investment.

With regard to cotton, it’s important to recognize that Fair Trade cotton is not, by definition, required to be organic.  This is because Fair Trade aims to support the most marginalized farmers, those who cannot always afford to convert to organic farming or who lack the knowledge about organic agriculture. It can take years to convert a crop to organic, but this transition is something that many Fair Trade cotton farmers work towards as they earn more income through the Fair Trade minimum price. There is added incentive to convert as well since Fair Trade pays a higher price for organic cotton.

From the Fairtrade Foundation website:  “Fairtrade cotton offers a positive alternative to thousands of cotton farmers in West African and in countries as widespread as India, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Egypt and Peru. Fairtrade certification brings farmers the guarantee of a fair and stable price. They also get an extra payment – the Fairtrade premium – which they can spend on community development projects such as schools, health clinics and clean water.

The benefits from sales of Fairtrade certified cotton have allowed farmers in India to develop basic health insurance schemes for themselves and health awareness programes for their children. In Mali, farmers have been able to fund the building of storage units for cotton and grain, enabling them to store food all year round and better control the sales of their cotton over the seasons, bringing them a more consistent income.”

Remember,  you will not see a Fair Trade label on any textile product other than cotton since cotton is a commodity and the only fiber certified under Fair Trade certifications:  there is no such thing as Fair Trade certified  linen, hemp, sisal, jute, wool, cashmere,  or silk.

There is a new apparel and linen Fair Trade mark in the United States.  Fair Trade Certified ™ apparel is supposed to be farm-to-finish. The entire supply chain, including mills for ginning, spinning, weaving and dyeing, is audited for traceability and basic labor compliance under Fairtrade Labelling Organizations (FLO) standards.

During the summer of 2010, blank T-shirts, and men’s  polo shirts became Fair Trade Certified in the United States.   Plans are in place to expand the products available to include tote bags, aprons, women’s sweaters, knit baby clothes, women’s casual wear (e.g., hoodies, wrap tops, dresses, knit pants, camis, and tanks), plus men’s and women’s lingerie.

It is important to note that the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) also guarantees fair working conditions and fair wages for workers in the supply chain.  GOTS also has the environmental component – requiring organic fibers, prohibiting use of toxic chemicals in the weaving and finishing of the fabrics, and requiring water treatment.  And GOTS can be applied to the finished product , such as apparel or bedlinens, and it extends even to packaging of the goods (prohibiting PVC plastics, for example).  And finally,  GOTS does encompass all natural fibers.

Another important note regarding Free Trade cotton:   the United States has a system of subsidizing cotton producers, and this flies in the face of everything Free Trade is trying to accomplish.  If you’re interested in these issues you can click here to read a recent Washington Post editorial about these subsidies, or just Google “US cotton subsidies and free trade”.

If you support the Fair Trade movement, click here for some action steps you can take to make it a reality.