Are Fair Trade Clothes the Fairest of them All?

Know Logo navigates our greenwashed marketplace, one logo at a time. Next up: Fair Trade USA-certified clothes.

Jeans in various colours hang on a chain link fence in front of a red brick building.
Photo by Matthew Henry via Burst

When I first became passionate about avoiding fast fashion, I found it hard to find one closet staple — jeans. I pored through lists of sustainable and ethical denim brands; each seemed like a good investment, but was out of my budget. In recent years, that’s begun to change. Major retailers like Target have begun selling jeans from Fair Trade USA-certified factories for under $30. Beyond denim, other fair-trade clothing has cropped up in stores, both mainstream and niche. But what does the seal’s growing abundance mean? Do fair-trade jeans truly embrace ethical labour and environmental standards?

What is Fair Trade USA?

Founded in 1998, Fair Trade USA originally certified a network of coffee growers. When coffee companies sourced beans from fair-trade farms — which met certain environmental and labour standards — and paid growers a set minimum above-market price, they received Fair Trade Certified labels. By the early 2000s, Fair Trade USA had expanded to tea, cocoa, and produce. Its sticker could be found on everything from chocolate bars to bananas. In 2010, the company began certifying cotton apparel and linens, and factories producing them.

What does the label indicate?

Fair Trade USA has three apparel certifications. First, Fair Trade Certified Factory and Fair Trade Certified Sewing seals certify garments manufactured in Fair Trade USA-certified factories; the raw materials, including fabric, are uncertified. This certification appears on jeans from Madewell and Target’s Universal Thread line, and on Mountain Equipment Coop’s fair-trade line.

Second, the Fair Trade Certified Cotton seal guarantees the cotton in the product comes from fair-trade sources and makes up at least 20% of the raw materials. The nonprofit doesn’t certify other fabrics, but some companies incorporate sustainability in other ways. For example, Patagonia makes products with a Fair Trade Sewing seal from recycled polyester.

Third, the Fair Trade Certified logo with no caveats guarantees the product is made in a certified factory and fair-trade cotton makes up at least 50% of the fabric mix. Fewer brands have this certification. HAE Now’s cotton products and Vonadhona’s T-shirts meet these standards.

How does certification work?

The Fair Trade USA Factory Standard for Apparel and Home Goods aims to empower workers, while ensuring fair working conditions and environmentally responsible production. Certification requirements fall into four categories. First, empowerment standards focus on ensuring workers can negotiate and work with management to improve working conditions. Second, social responsibility standards require factories to uphold labour, health, and safety standards, and buyers to commit to long-term purchases to create a stable climate for factories to improve working conditions. Third, factories must meet environmental standards and continuously improve environmental practices.

The money funds community projects, like childcare facilities, computer centers, and health care clinics.

Fourth, the certification promotes economic development by requiring brands to pay Fair Trade Certified suppliers a premium above the cost of goods. The premium goes into an account managed by a committee of elected workers and non-voting management representatives, which funds community projects, such as childcare facilities, computer centers, and health care clinics, or distributes cash bonuses to employees.

Suppliers must comply with a long list of Fair Trade USA factory standards, the majority of which must be met immediately. Others can be met within one or three years of certification. Fair Trade USA grants certification for three years at time with third-party certification audits completed triannually and third-party surveillance audits in intervening years. If a supplier is not complying with requirements, they must remedy the problems. Otherwise, they can lose certification.

Fair Trade Certified Cotton is grown on fair-trade farms and, depending on the certificate holder, may be spun in certified mills and processing facilities. Factories and traders can purchase unprocessed seed cotton or spun and dyed textiles from a list of certified suppliers. Certified farms must avoid pesticides and fertilizers banned by Fair Trade USA and follow waste disposal requirements that aim to protect soil quality and biodiversity. Additionally, cotton buyers, like traders or processors, must pay farms a minimum price for cotton, a crop whose value often fluctuates.

How is Fair Trade USA funded?

Brands, factories, and farms seeking certification pay for audits through a third party. Fair Trade USA charges clothing brands a portion of sales depending on the scale of their operation. It also receives donations and grants. Some critics have questioned this financial structure, as the more suppliers it certifies, the more licensing fees it generates.

How does Fair Trade USA compare to other certifiers?

To Asparagus’ knowledge, Fair Trade USA is the only third-party fair-trade certifier for discrete apparel factories. Other groups like Fairtrade International also certify cotton.

In terms of cotton, Fair Trade USA and Fairtrade International have some differences. Fair Trade International prioritizes small-scale producers while Fair Trade USA certifies both plantations and small farms. Wage Requirements also differ. Fairtrade International requires farms pay workers a living wage within six years or a union-negotiated deadline; Fair Trade USA requires progression towards a living wage without a definitive timeline. Both groups monitor suppliers with audits, prohibit forced labor, and require that workers have the right to join unions.

How well does it work?

Fair Trade USA’s apparel program has worked with dozens of brands to shift fraught supply chains and source clothes from more ethical manufacturers. But Anna Canning, campaigns manager for the Fair World Project, a fair trade watchdog group, worries brands benefit too much from Fair Trade USA’s individual factory and cotton logos.

“What we see overall is a lot of marketing of impact, but less so systems to back that up,” she said, pointing to J. Crew’s fair-trade jeans. When they debuted, J. Crew received a rush of media coverage. But, even though the jeans were sewn in a Fair Trade USA-certified factory, the farming, spinning, and dying of the cotton in the jeans were not evaluated by Fair Trade USA.

Too often, uncertified cotton is harvested or spun unethically.

Too often, uncertified cotton is harvested or spun unethically. Forced labor was prevalent in the 2019 cotton harvests in Uzbekistan and has been documented during cotton harvests Turkmenistan. Child labor has been reported in other major cotton-producing countries like India, Pakistan, and Burkina Faso. Many cotton laborers work seasonally, are from poorer regions, and are exposed to dangerous pesticides. Beyond that, cotton’s prices can rapidly fluctuate, leaving workers at risk of uncertain wages and poverty.

In addition, some worker’s rights groups and academics question the effectiveness of audits, which are at the heart of Fair Trade USA’s process. They worry workers may not feel comfortable speaking honestly and annual visits don’t provide a full picture of what happens year-round.

Which seal should I look for when I buy clothes?

The complete Fair Trade USA Certified Seal is the best option for fair-trade cotton goods. However, certified apparel that is not 100% cotton contains non-certified materials, too.

In these cases, you can research where the producer sources other materials. Groups like Fair Trade Federation and Fair World Project assemble lists of brands with ethical and transparent supply chains. You can also consider other fabric certifications, including the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), Cradle to Cradle, and Textile Exchange. Finally, buying clothes second hand is perhaps the most sustainable option, as it reduces waste and extends the life of garments.

Personally, I decided against buying certified jeans. I prefer clothes for which supplier transparency extends from the beginning of the supply chain to the end. Still, it seemed impossible a Fair Trade logo could appear within big box stores just five years ago. I’m hopeful its popularity will continue to grow.

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