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Fair Trade and Fashion                                                                                                                       

Robert “Toby” Fatzinger

The fashion industry has traditionally depended on value creation, labor subjugation, and environmental deregulation to drive profits.  To combat these practices, a fair-trade movement working to re-shape consumer culture has begun to develop.  Ethix Ventures is a U.S. merchandise distributor that has teamed up with The Industrial Commons, a North Carolina manufacturing coalition, to create the Just Markets Initiative.  Just Markets is focused on providing ethically sourced apparel solutions to institutions that have embraced the mission of the movement.

There is certainly no denying the historical significance of apparel that pre-dates the industrial fashion machine of the 20th century.  Since the days of the silk road, textiles and garments have been a sought-after commodity.  Indeed, the textile trade was the primary motivation for the British Industrial Revolution.  In recent years, however, we have seen global corporate consolidations of supply chains that have adversely affected all its segments from the garment manufacturers on down to the agricultural producers.  

With a booming post-war population in the mid-20th century United States, demand for all types of goods began to increase.  To meet that demand and increase profits, apparel companies started to look abroad for cheap labor. This search began in the 1950s and by the ’70s and ’80s production for global fashion chains were well established in Asian countries while US domestic production was on the decline.  Due to trade agreements like NAFTA in the ’90s, those supply lines extended to Mexico.   

The apparel industry employs so many workers in such a variety of concentrations that its effects on the environment are incredibly far-reaching.  The production of textiles varies greatly from leather manufacturing to cotton and chemical-based products.  Most, if not all require government oversight to prevent production methods that pose harmful environmental threats.  Fossil-based materials comprise most of what surrounds us in our American homes, but they are finite.  The dense biomass they require for future generations is being depleted as well through the production of materials like rubber and rayon.

To add to that, the labor intensity of sewing, manufacturing, and printing has equally far-reaching economic implications.  By sourcing textiles from agricultural centers far removed from production facilities, the labor is compartmentalized, and the local economies can be controlled by whoever controls the supply lines.  This often means that workers have few if any alternatives to garment work.  Their wages are controlled, workplace safety is unregulated, and spending power is non-existent.  Under this system, labor plays no role in determining value.   

Photo credit: Collection

The recent rise of fast fashion over the last decade represents the culmination of these global trends.  With ever-increasing demand for affordable fashion, the only way to lower end-user costs is to maximize profit potential in otherwise fixed areas of the supply chain, like labor.  Although the U.S. represents only 5% of the world’s population their consumption of its goods is approximately 24%.

This consumer culture is driven by a fashion industry that drives production abroad.  While some grassroots organizations and conscientious distributors have worked for years to provide consumers ethical alternatives, new visions of the future of consumerism are starting to take shape in the wake of the 2020 pandemic.  One example is the “degrowth” movement which is focused on reducing consumer dependency.

Ethix Ventures has been working to provide alternatives to sweatshop apparel since 2002.  They deal only in domestically manufactured materials and use union labor whenever possible. The Industrial Commons (TIC) was formed in 2015 to connect organizations in a way that improves livelihoods and roots wealth in communities.  Since then, they have created a cooperative network of over 100 manufacturers committed to the values of transparency, environmental stewardship, and worker justice.  Western North Carolina is a manufacturing hub, but TIC’s business is contract-based.  As such, they connected with organizations like Ethix Ventures to bring steady work to their established supply chain.  This led to the two entities’ collaboration on the Just Markets initiative.  

Photo: A purchaser examines ethically sourced products in North Carolina. photo credit: The Industrial Commons

One of the primary challenges facing the work being done by Ethix Ventures and the Industrial Commons on the Just Markets Initiative is overcoming the existing consumer culture of buy often, spend less.  Just Markets is unable to compete with the price points of fast fashion, so its success is dependent on a new consumer culture that values broad impact over immediate savings.  By pursuing relationships with large institutions like the Catholic School system, they are hopeful that their merchandise can affect immediate change on a large scale.  

Just Markets is not the only organization that hopes to use its brands as a vehicle for change. Great Divide Supply is an Australian company that sources locally from organic cotton farmers.  A Reason for HOPE is an ethical apparel brand out of Columbia that uses a supply chain free of unfair labor.  One of the pioneers in the movement for fair trade sustainable fashion is an organization called People Tree that has been active for 25 years.  These companies, however, are focused on a global pursuit of change whereas the Just Markets initiative is committed to domestic institutional reform.  Serving an American client base that represents 24% of the world’s consumption, this reform has the potential of being quite significant if the Just Markets Initiative is successful.

While evidence exists that mainstream thinking around consumer culture may be changing, a new challenge to the Just Markets Initiative is forming in its wake.  As demand for ethically sourced materials grows, global apparel giants are sure to start developing their own brands to satisfy this base.  This scenario could serve to change the industry that has done so much harm to people and the environment already or it may just be an intended obstacle for organizations like Just Markets.

The building of new movements like sustainable fashion finds success in the infrastructure they leave behind.  While there is little doubt that the world would benefit greatly from the ultimate success of organizations like Ethix Ventures, The Industrial Commons, and their Just Markets Initiative, it is important to look at what they have already achieved.  Since 2002 Ethix Ventures has diverted millions of dollars from the global sweat shop and slave labor market.  The Industrial Commons has well established a viable supply chain of independent organizations and cooperatives that are actively improving lives while fulfilling industry needs.  And the message of the Just Markets Initiative, as well as their product, has reached national institutions that share their mission.  These building blocks provide a solid foundation for an enduring fight that the welfare of the planet and its inhabitants are dependent upon.     

For more on the Just Markets Initiative, click here.


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