If you’re anything like me, when you hear the phrase Fair Trade, you automatically think of labor. And, rightly so when you consider the founding principles of the movement and the astonishing achievements made during its history. Whether it be improving factory conditions, raising the financial return for marginalized farmers, or providing vital business support to small Fair Trade producers, Fair Trade is mostly about people.
However, this persistent strive toward more equitable trading relationships also contains an explicit link to environmental sustainability. This field has experienced a surge in public awareness in recent years, fueled in part by waves of research in climate change and marine plastics (along with numerous related other topics).
Nevertheless, on paper, it’s fair to say that the environment doesn’t appear to hold as much influence in Fair Trade's focus, with its own corresponding standard tucked away in the 10th and final principle of the WFTO's 10 Principles of Fair Trade. Even more, the ambiguity associated with the principle's title––“Respect for the Environment”––might serve to fuel skeptical perspectives on its practical role in Fair Trade; what, after all, do we mean by “respect,” and how do we go about ensuring it without passing on prohibitive costs to the producers involved? Three key factors can help explain this introductory question.
When reading the rationale behind the WFTO's 10th principle, one may find it difficult to discover the details missing from its title. However, this issue is a common one with international guidelines: different political environments offer varying interpretations of what “sustainability” may be in practice at a given time, and, in a given place, under a wide variety of constraints. Here we must keep in mind the countries or regions of focus where Fair Trade aims to achieve meaningful change for marginalized producers. For instance, in regions as diverse as Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and Southern Asia, the value of highly specific sustainability rules would be questionable at best.
In other words, these continents contain nations ravaged by civil conflict and disease, excluded by global trading blocks and institutions, and pressurized by rapidly changing demographics amidst critically low real incomes per capita. Consequentially, less-advanced management capacity partly explains the repetitive use of “where possible” in relation to uptakes of renewable technologies, organic methods, or raw materials. Fair Trade will always look to these activities during the certification process, yes, but with the knowledge that producers in the developing world are up against much.
In the UK many middle school-aged students witness their teacher demonstrate the share of commodity-based income across different trading parties. One way method focused on banana producers entails a couple of cooking pots and water. What follows the teacher’s pouring of water (income) into the different pots (economic agents) could only be described as a striking collision of amazement and incredulity in students. How could such a momentous proportion of the finished product’s sale completely escape the original farmer’s hands, avoiding them like the Plague? The synonymous squeezing of primary producer income explains why many simply cannot consider long-term, inconspicuous, environmental concerns in their regions.
Still, the simple but astounding characteristic of Fair Trade is its acknowledgment of the attached social and environmental costs so thoughtlessly overlooked by the architects of common long-distance manufacturing/supply contracts. If the managers of those faraway factories received decent profitability, an investment could be re-injected into improved environmental practices and safety, along with employee pay raises. And, given the undeniable benefits of such actions for managers in light of employee productivity (to say nothing of public relations advantages), Fair Trade premiums and investment in these producers' capacity for environmental stewardship might make the broad language of Principle 10 less relevant.
What seems certain in our current economic environment, however, is the lack of any countervailing forces in consumer behavior when it comes to the Fast Fashion paradigm. This industry's success is predicated on the cultivation and exploitation of a “throwaway” consumer psychology ruthlessly inculcated in the minds of everyday people through modern marketing. Bizarrely low prices combine with and reinforce the throwaway mentality leaving people in wealthier economies insulated from the bigger picture of human suffering active in the textile factories of the developing world.
But when you learn that 80 billion new fashion items are being sold annually, the concept of overconsumption can no longer be ignored. With intransigent price cuts, razor-thin profit margins, and increasingly exploitative mass production methods, big-name fashion brands have come to make things so cheaply that most people wouldn’t think twice about throwing away something worn once. The environmental costs, and their concealment from the average consumer, are also devastating: barely used garments are casually thrown away, creating additional debris in dangerous landfill sites; chemicals and finishing agents render once-glamorous clothes toxic to our air and water; and evermore plastic from bags and labels seep into the oceans imperiling ecosystems around the globe. It's a bleak picture.
But there is an upside. Envision the positive response generated by attention to these tragedies. Extensive cuts in the 14 million tons of mostly non-biodegradable waste from American wardrobes every year could have a hugely positive impact across areas. And, the best part: your own role in this process can be played from the comfort of your sofa, where you can find and support Slow Fashion brands online, one purchase at a time. The Fair Trade movement and the environment it aims to protect will thank you.