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Fair Indigo: fair trade apparel for Middle America

Fair trade coffee has become de rigeur, as easy as a stop in a Starbucks or your local supermarket, but fair trade clothing? It’s not exactly on most of our radar.

More popularly associated with ill-fitting styles or a hippy aesthetic, it definitely hasn’t gained the traction of the fair trade java market, which is charting a 75 percent annual growth rate. Now a group of former executives from the preppy clothing line Land’s End are trying to change that with the launch of Fair Indigo. 

They lay out their style-meets-fairness doctrine on their website, “We wanted to create stylish, high-quality clothes while paying a fair and meaningful wage to the people who produce them. It’s a concept known as “fair trade” and it means we put people first.” Theirs may be one of the few websites still defining “fair trade”, but they’re not aiming for just the eco-savvy consumers. 

This is fair trade for Middle America and they’re not relying on just a website to sell the numbers they’re hoping for. In September they mailed their first catalog to 250,000 homes and this month they are launching their first retail store in Madison, Wisconsin.

Fair Indigo chief executive Bill Blass explained to The New York Times that their competition aren’t boutique fair trade labels. “There are some mom-and-pop operations out there, but they’re not selling high-end casual stuff you’d want to wear to work. And our pricing is in the range of other companies that sell the same kinds of clothes.” 

A velvet jacket for $139 or slim-fit jeans for $59, these are Middle American prices, unlike one of the other much buzzed about fair-trade retailers Edun. Started by the wife of U2 rocker Bono, they’ve received plenty of publicity, but their prices- like a $132 tank top- will probably prevent them from revolutionizing how America shops. 

One of the problems with being the first to market is the lack of regulatory bodies in place for fair-trade clothing. The US fair trade certification agency, TransFair USA, only monitors coffee, tea, cocoa and some fruit, rice and sugar. They claim it will take at least a year to create a process for certifying clothing since apparel passes through so many different businesses on its way from raw materials to finished product. TransFair spokeswoman Nicole Chettero told The Chicago Tribune, “We believe our label can only be on something that is 100 percent fair-trade certified from the farm to the finished product. Apparel is definitely at the top of our list. In order to do it justice, we want to do it right.” 

In the meantime, Fair Indigo relies on their own definition of fair trade, like that accompanying their jeans on their website. “We almost had to say “maybe next year” in our search for fair trade jeans. Then our Costa Rican pant cooperative told us about a little shop down the road where twenty or so workers have been quietly making jeans for years. Family-owned, outstanding pay, free jeans for life, and a bonus four hours of pay per week. In other words, fair trade.” 

The problem with Fair Indigo’s self-regulating approach is that you have to take their word for it. Even if you wanted to investigate their “family-owned” coop with “outstanding pay”, you wouldn’t be able to find it because Fair Indigo doesn’t release any information on their factories. They claim that after spending a year and a half locating their suppliers, they don’t want other companies to steal their business out from under them. 

That argument doesn’t persuade Charles Kernaghan of the National Labor Committee, one of the nation’s veteran crusaders against sweatshop labor. Last month, he expressed his concern to The Chicago Tribune, “You can’t really claim to be a fair-trade company without a minimum of releasing the names and addresses of the factories. If they say they won’t do that because other companies will find the factories, that’s exactly what Wal-Mart says.” 

Unlike Wal-Mart, Fair Indigo tries to explain their methods for fair labor practices on their website. “The factories we are working with are paying wages that are significantly higher than the wages required by law or convention in the local areas we work in.  While there isn’t a one-size-fits-all fair wage formula, we are relying on a University of Wisconsin international research team to help us determine what a “living” wage is in each of our locations.” 

Knowing that their image is everything, they feel compelled to defend their use of non-union labor on their site. “While we certainly support the right of workers to form unions, we do not consider them a make-or-break factor in workers earning fair wages and living comfortable lives.” Their decision to produce some products in China, a country well-known for poor working conditions, is another highly contentious issue. 

“There are many bad factories in China.  But after nearly a year of searching, interviewing, auditing, and re-auditing, we found there are some outstanding factories too, where workers are truly being lifted up out of their former poverty.  We do not believe it is moral to penalize these workers nor their generous factory owners simply because they happen to live in one country.  We believe the most effective way to change the apparel business in China is by rewarding the family-run factories that are shining examples of what it could be, and encouraging other clothing retailers to follow us.” 

Hopefully, they can be taken at their word. With fashionably-competitive clothes at affordable prices, it can seem too good to be true, but those at Fair Indigo claim that prices can be kept down without exploiting workers, and this time, they’re not afraid to reveal their secrets. 
“First, we use worker-owned cooperatives wherever we can.  This eliminates layers of overhead since worker and owner are one and the same.  Second, wherever possible we work directly with each of our non co-op factories, eliminating the need for middlemen.  And finally, unlike most clothing brands, we do not spend huge sums on advertising, instead relying on you, our customers, to spread the word about Fair Indigo. ”