Why buying Fairtrade cotton matters

cotton farmer with sign
© Bijal Vachharajani, via Fairtrade America

It's great that you're buying Fairtrade coffee and chocolate, but now it's time to apply that standard to your wardrobe.

Today kicks off Fashion Revolution Week, an annual reminder of the terribly dangerous conditions in which most of our clothes are produced. The week, which is meant to be both commemorative and educational, was a response to the Rana Plaza factory collapse that happened five years ago this month and killed over 1,000 people.

It's a good time of year, then, for Fairtrade America to draw people's attention to cotton production. The organization, which is the U.S. chapter of Fairtrade International and different from Fair Trade USA, has released a 12-minute video on YouTube called "Unraveling the Thread: The Story of Cotton." It is all about cotton clothing, how it's made, and why we as shoppers should care about ensuring that it has been ethically produced.

farmer tossing cotton in air© Sean Hawkey, via Fairtrade America

The video (shown below) goes into interesting detail about cotton production. It shows the ginning and spinning processes, as well as dyeing. Then there are the now-familiar scenes of massive factories with workers seated at sewing machines, churning out the garments we buy for so little money, a.k.a. fast fashion.

The main message, however, is that cotton farmers are struggling immensely, despite the fact that their crop is the biggest fibre crop in the world. Twenty million tons of cotton are grown annually (picture 20 million horses) to provide a broad range of products, and yet it is greatly undervalued. Cotton prices have dropped 45 percent since the 1960s, from more than $1.37 per pound to just $.79 in 2014, while the cost of production has increased significantly.

Fairtrade has responded to this persistent problem by creating its own Textile Production Standard, and it is encouraging companies to sign on. After a six-year phase-in process, garment workers would be earning a living wage, which is higher than the notoriously low wages currently paid to most workers. The standard has been in place for one year and so far the results are excellent. From a press release:

"Within its first year Fairtrade’s Textile Program has helped improve the lives of factory workers by working closely with brands to establish fair purchasing practices and encourage greater worker participation. Through its work with local NGOs and trade unions in countries where goods are made, Fairtrade has helped build awareness of labor rights and strengthened workers’ ability to negotiate higher wages. As a result, several factories are currently on track to pay a living wage within the next few years."

As shoppers, one of the best things we can do is to seek out cotton garments that have been certified by Fairtrade. This guarantees a fair price for farmers, even when the market price drops. In addition, farmers are paid a Fairtrade premium that can be used to invest in farms, education, or other community projects. One project shown in the video helps to educate farmers in using fewer toxic chemicals, which ends up benefiting everyone from the farmers themselves to the many children being born with serious health problems in India due to environmental contamination to shoppers exposed to off-gassing chemicals.

Fairtrade logo© Fairtrade

It doesn't take much to make a big difference. The Fairtrade Foundation estimates that "a one percent increase in the retail price of clothing could result in a 10 percent increase in the seed cotton price for farmers."

Mark Fashion Revolution Week by talking with your local retailers and asking what Fairtrade options they offer, or whether they would consider selling them. The more people who speak out, the more likely change is to occur. You can start by checking out this list of Fairtrade-certified cotton products.

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