This has been a time of firsts for fair trade jeans, what retailers claim is simply their response to consumer demand.
While we’ve seen fair trade jeans on
the Internet and in specialty boutiques for awhile now, they’ve finally
gone mainstream. Even the creators of the original blue jean have gotten into the game, though with only a baby step; Levi Strauss’s new Capital E jeans aren’t made from fair trade cotton, but they are the companies first attempt at 100% organic.
In May of 2006, British online clothing retailer Hug,
whose goal is “to make fair trade fashion and to make fair trade
fashionable”, launched what they say are the first UK jeans “to be made
with Fairtrade certified cotton.”
Only two months later, retailing giant Marks & Spencer,
who in April had switched all their coffee and tea to Fairtrade, became
the first mass market retailer in the UK to launch Fairtrade cotton
In September of 2006, the new American fair trade retailer Fair Indigo began selling fair trade jeans to the mass market with a catalogue blitz arriving to 250,000 US homes.
Retailers, like Marks & Spencer,
say the move to add jeans to the list of readily available Fairtrade
products, like coffee and chocolate, can be attributed to demand. “We
know from our own research that shoppers want to be able to buy more
Fairtrade products, made or grown by farmers in developing countries
who are guaranteed a fair price for their goods.”
Ali Hewson, wife of U2 frontman Bono, launched her Fairtrade jeans as part of her Fairtrade line Edun,
nearly two years ago. She understands her clients’ desire for
accountability in their clothing. “Where you spend your hard-earned
dollar or pound says a lot about you. People want to know more about…
where their clothes come from.” (Case Weatherhead School of
Management). Those hard-earned dollars or pounds don’t go far with many
of these labels. Edun’s jeans begin at around £100 or $185 a pair and
those from Hug are just slightly less.
Marks & Spencer’s Fairtrade
jeans are relatively cheap for the category, but at £35 they are still
four times the price of the store’s cheapest women’s denims. According
to Mike Barry, head of CSR at Marks & Spencer, the price is
reflective of the cost of Fairtrade organic cotton and a big reason the
retailer hasn’t switched to organic cotton throughout their clothing
lines. “There are only 1,000 tonnes of Fairtrade cotton available
and M&S uses 50,000 tonnes of cotton on its own. Even if we bought
the entire world’s supply, it would just be a fraction of what we
Fairtrade cotton doesn’t guarantee
the product is manufactured to the final stitch according to Fairtrade standards. While Fair Indigo claims that their Costa Rican cooperative
provides “outstanding pay” and “free jeans for life”, you have to take
their word for it. Marks & Spencer, like many of the big names
(Gap, Next, Zara), has taken steps to guarantee basic rights for their
workers by joining Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI).
It’s not a stamp of Fairtrade, members are committed to working with
suppliers that don’t use child labor and that pay “living wages” and
provide decent working conditions.
A report by the UK’s Ethical Consumer Magazine
found “some significant improvements made by a small number of
well-known companies.” They credit Marks & Spencer with improving
its supply chain policy and Calvin Klein for its new accreditation by
the US-based Fair Labor Association,
but they hesitate to actually recommend buying from any of the larger
brands. “Despite the development of ethical strategies by the major
retailers and manufacturers, until there are more guarantees about
environmental standards and workers’ rights, Ethical Consumer can only
recommend jeans made by the three alternative suppliers: Hug, Kuyichi
and Greenfibres.” Here it is the full list.
Of the three recommended by the
magazine, Green Fibres is the only of the three that doesn’t carry a
Fairtrade label, but simply an organic one. William Lana, company
director, told Green Futures Magazine
that the latter label can sometimes trump the former. “People ask ‘Why
aren’t you Fairtrade?’ and I answer, ‘I have to go to the developing
world for that’… By working with suppliers close to home, we help
support local economies and reduce air miles.” When shopping for
clothing, it is possible to take air miles into account.
According to designer Rebecca Earley, a designer and researcher at the Chelsea College of Art & Design, there are plenty of labels to guide buyers.
“There are 15 under the EU for textiles and garment production. Some
cover fair trade, others organics, others air miles – but there is no
single label covering all.”
While we wait for an all-inclusive
label to help us buy jeans that don’t exploit workers or the land while
simultaneously limiting air miles, we must be satisfied with improving
the lives of Peruvian sewers and the corresponding Fairtrade slogans,
like those inscribed in the pockets of every pair of Edun jeans: “We
carry the story of the people who make our clothes around with us.”