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A Fair Trade Journey

Thursday, May 1st, 2014

My father-in-law pointed to the cover of the New York Times and asked me – “Is this what you do for work?”, referring to the image of Rana Plaza, a garment factory in Bangladesh, in the first days of the news making it out into international press. The building collapse on April 24, 2013 was one of the most recent atrocities in the garment industry.
“Yes” I replied, “I help companies understand their supply chains to prevent issues like this.”
The truth is, labor issues happen all over the world ever day to varying degrees – a building might not collapse, but a worker is not getting paid legal wages, or is working in an unsafe working environment and egregious amounts of pollution are being exposed to workers and the environment. All to make stuff.
So the job to prevent these issues is beyond one person and one company, one government to change all at once, but where I see inspiration is in the ability to make better choices where the sum of their results will shift our world for the better.
The garment industry has a pretty big set of cards stacked against it. Recently NPR highlighted our supply chain through the story of a cotton T-Shirt. The issues are apparent. Cotton farmers are at risk. Conventional cotton relies on GMO seed, synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. In India, the story of the increase in cotton farmer suicides continues because they were indebted to the chemical and seed companies. If our garment isn’t using a natural fiber then it is reliant on a non-renewable resource – petroleum, and how far will that get us? Our industry is shifting – costs are increasing, workers are harder to find in traditional garment manufacturing areas.
It is in this context that you will find a few companies who are asking the questions of what will we have to change about ourselves; and how we do business to even have a supply chain in the future. Further to even ask to have a supply chain that actually benefits everyone along it?
Fair Trade In Clothes?
When prAna’s founders started the company there was an underlining desire to incorporate sustainability into the business and that has evolved over the years. The company has gone from an intention to a process of educating ourselves, our customers and our supply chain on the opportunities we have to use our business as a vehicle of change. When a thousand decisions get made every day – we have to start with one and that is not enough, nor fast enough for everyone. But by the next day, you have made 2 and that is progress.
One decision prAna looked at was what would it take to really impact the worker’s lives who make prAna’s clothes. The opportunity really showed itself when Fair Trade USA developed its Fair Trade Certified Apparel Standard in 2010.
Fair Trade Certified apparel means that not only is a strict standard for working conditions followed, but also the investment to improving workers lives directly through the Fair Trade premium, an additional sum of money paid directly to workers. This idea was attractive because is was tapping into the benefits of the market economy and rewarding suppliers committed to social responsibility.
In 2011 prAna was one of the first brands to offer Fair Trade Certified Apparel. We started with one t-shirt and grew the style count each season. The growth was slow due in part to the lack of Fair Trade Certified suppliers available. With any new standard available to factories and one that was this different in its approach, education and awareness building was needed. In order for prAna to meet our goal of offering a majority of our products as Fair Trade Certified we needed to roll up our sleeves and partner with key existing suppliers and invest in them becoming Fair Trade.
What We Did
Asking a factory to become Fair Trade is a big request. The factory needs to meet the highest standards for workplace conditions, invest in environmental protection, women’s empowerment, and has to give workers a seat at the table. It was not something we were asking lightly.
But the benefits of Fair Trade are significant as well – factories have seen lower turnover rates and higher worker loyalty because of the shift in seeing workers as assets in the business. The better working conditions and benefits support this. And core to the program is the Fair Trade Worker Committee, which constitutes majority workers, and together with management develop a dialogue about the factory, issues and grievances. This committee also decides on how the Fair Trade Premium will be allocated to the workers.
We knew as a brand we would have to commit to these factories, we would have to say, “we are with you for the long term.” Despite changing trends in the market we would need to be able to provide them business to make this investment on their side pay off. So with feedback from prAna staff we picked 4 factories that we felt were close to meeting the Fair Trade standards about becoming certified.
The process started as most things do with a conversation. And the conversation started with those connected closest to the factory on a daily basis – our design, development and production teams. In what we call vendor meetings our team started the dialogue about the importance of prAna’s interest in Fair Trade.
Then we got serious and strategic. Knowing that it always takes multiple conversations, we brought in the team at Fair Trade USA to help us craft a good overview of Fair Trade and the impact it would have on the factory.
In October 2013, two of our product developers, Anne Marie Ragland and Alison Metcalfe, shared prAna’s direction in person with the suppliers they met with in India.
Building off this we then set up online webinars with members from each of the factories, and the Fair Trade USA staff and prAna to talk through the details – of what would this really mean for them. The factory managers were then sent the standards and we left them to discuss and think about if this would be the right fit for them?
We used a trip in November 2013 where myself, prAna’s VP of Product Development and Production and Diego LaTorre of Fair Trade USA went over everything that had been discussed so far and what next steps could look like.
On the same trip we took the opportunity to visit prAna’s current current Fair Trade suppliers: Rajlakshmi and Esteam, to learn about the impact that Fair Trade was making at their facilities.
And to ice our cake we took the opportunity to visit the source of our Fair Trade organic cotton.
Why This Was Important
To make a great product takes investment. It takes thinking differently, creatively, knowing your customer’s end needs and designing beautiful products to meet them. Great products come out of this process. We see investing in growing Fair Trade a piece of that process., not only for a single product but the creation of the seismic shift we need to see in the apparel industry. Fundamentally it illustrates the need to advocate for an alternative way of doing business to respect and improve the lives of everyone all along the supply chain.
Advocating An Alternative Way Of Doing Business
Inspired by Albert Einstein – we will need a new way of thinking to solve the problem that our old way of thinking created. There is no better example than that of Fair Trade. While it is not a new model, Fair Trade’s history has primarily been in agriculture. What Fair Trade brings to the apparel industry is a shifting in values and spotlighting people who have been taken advantage of for so long.
I often argue it is a true waste of resources to create profit at the expense of people and the environment only to donate it back to charities that need to be formed to clean up our mess left through the profit only model. The drive should be to prevent the issues in the first place and when it comes to environmental and social degradation, Fair Trade is a tool to ensure this. And, with Fair Trade apparel, this can happen for both factory workers and cotton farmers.
Fair Trade Cotton
With apparel it is easy to forget that what we wear was actually planted in the ground at one point. The investment in Fair Trade at the cotton level is actually shifting a farmer’s ability to live. The structure for Fair Trade cotton provides farmers fair access to the global market where they can compete. This is something we were able to see first hand when we visited Chetna Organic Farmers Cooperative outside of Hyderabad India.
The Fair Trade model uses the existing capitalist structure of supply and demand. These farmers have to grow quality cotton and get it to market in order to receive the Fair Trade premium. Fair Trade in cotton has been going on for many years and the impact of that investment in money back to these communities was apparent. Rather that needing to leave the rural areas – Fair Trade has provided economic security for these farmers. Intercropping on the plots of land meant that food crops and cotton were being grown together to not only support biodiversity and pest management, but to provide multiple channels of revenue and food security.
Fair Trade cotton has been sold to the European market for over a decade, so the impact of the Fair Trade premium is much more evident to the Fair Trade cotton farmers. The buyer in their communities is held with high respect and regard as they are seen as the ones who determine the future of the farmer’s lives. Welcomed with marigold wreathes, drumming, and smiles we joined the parade of our supply chain with our factory owner and farmers marching along the dirt road towards their new vocational school.
There is abject poverty and there are the poor who just have the ability to meet basic needs. In the Fair Trade cotton fields we saw intercropping, where cotton was only one crop, the rest being vegetables, castor, lentils or soya, this allows for food security.
The village had a well, a school, and even a little shop. The project that opened while we were there was a sewing vocational school for women who wanted to develop skills and start their own businesses for making and marketing local clothes. The ceremony was one of great thanks, not just to one person, or company, but also to everyone who made this happen. There was great thanks to supporting an alternative way of thinking, working and creating a new future.
A Fair Trade Factory
fair-trade-journey-04The impacts that are different, but they are also significant at the factory level. While on our trip we met with the current Fair Trade factories producing for prAna. What we heard was different than traditional factories. Turnover rates were below 5%, with one closer to 0. Workers had a connection to the products that they were making because for the first time they had a stake in the game. The more Fair Trade Apparel that went through the factory, the higher the premium would be paid directly to them.
The impact at the factory is also a story that needs to be told. In order to promote more factories with owners who want to live better, do better for their communities then examples have to exist to be pointed to.
prAna has been working with the factory Rajlakshmi for 3 years in the Fair Trade program. We started out with 2 T-shirts and have now expanded to also include dresses, skirts and sweaters.
On a quick glimpse, the factory would look like any other garment factory, with a layout of cutting, sewing, ironing, packing etc. But one doesn’t have to look far to see something special in the details.
As someone described the feel is like prAna, people are smiling, talking, working with a lightness.
At one of our factories – Rajlakshmi workers took their Fair Trade premium and delivered it as a cash bonus to the workers resulting in 1 week’s pay.
In interviewing workers this money was used in various ways including:
• Buying a worker’s first cell phone
• Purchasing clothes / books for their children’s schooling
• Aiding a sick relative with purchasing medication
• Saving money to buy a bicycle
• Saving money for their children’s dowry, education.
The Fair Trade supply chain is one like I have never seen before – where there is a desire to do the right thing, to be good business partners and ensure that the people all along are taken care of.
We work hard at prAna – we are a high energy, hardworking and playful culture. So are the people in the factories we source from.
Different walls, a different latitude and climate maybe, but the workers in the factories are filled with people with dreams, struggles, desires to eat better, spend time with their families and friends, provide a better life for their children. We all want the same things and therefore we all deserve the highest respect.
So we have to acknowledge when we make decisions that we are affecting their lives.
Changing our self and our supply chain is only part of the equation in creating an alternative business model. We also need a customer base who support this change. prAna is lucky to have a core customer base that wants the same goals as us, which will allow us to move forward. But it’s a big world out there. We have a challenge in front of us – to not only clear the path, but to educate everyone along the way.
Yes this is hard and it is worth doing.
My Peace
One day I hope my father-in-law shares another story with me, not one of a factory that has fallen, a fire, a riot, but one about the positive impacts of the apparel industry. One that tells the story of what Fair Trade has done to the industry, one where there are more brands, more factories investing in better working conditions and where workers are given the ability to improve their own lives and the lives of their communities.
~ Nicole Bassett, Director of Sustainability
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