ATLANTA — To the traditional garment industry, the fair trade movement is often misunderstood or unknown.

But to a growing number of manufacturers, fair trade is more than a Utopian challenge to the pitfalls of capitalism, from sweatshops to environmental ravages. Backed by a strong consumer contingent, and activists from celebrities to college students, manufacturers are finding ways to make fair trade a viable, even profitable alternative, although making money is not often considered the primary mission.

What is fair trade? Defined by the Fair Trade Federation in Washington, D.C., fair trade is “commitment from companies in highly industrialized nations to providing fair wages and good employment opportunities to low-income producers in developing regions of the world.”

In addition to wages, fair trade promotes cooperative workplaces; consumer education; environmental sustainability; financial and technical support; respect for cultural identity, and public accountability. Fair trade organizations have risen in the past 20 years, with globalization and the mass exodus of U.S. manufacturing to off-shore production.

Today, more than 100 fair trade organizations operate in North America, according to one of the largest, the Fair Trade Federation. Established in 1982, the FTF, based in Washington, D.C., has 125 U.S. members, both in retail and wholesale, making and selling products including apparel and accessories, agricultural products and home items. The FTF estimated member companies sold $100 million worth of products in 2001 in the U.S. and Canada. While 2002 figures are not finalized, sales will be significantly higher, said an FTF spokesperson.

The Fair Trade Resource Network, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit organization that promotes fair trade awareness, estimates worldwide sales of fairly traded products at $500 million. Though definite figures are not available, sales include 2001 numbers reported by European organizations such as the European Fair Trade Association in Geneva, Switzerland, and the International Federation for Alternative Trade, in Bicester, England.

U.S. members of the FTF include apparel, jewelry and crafts producers such as Akron, Penn.-based Ten Thousand Villages, a retail/wholesaler; Aid Through Trade, a Greenbelt, Md.-based manufacturer of jewelry and apparel, and Marketplace India, an Evanston, Ill., importer of apparel made in India.Co-op America, also in Washington, lists dozens of fair trade manufacturers in a publication called the “National Green Pages.” Other fair trade groups bring together retailers and wholesalers in smaller, local groups, such as Swirlspace, a San Francisco cooperative of fair trade retailers. Manufacturers are often independently owned and experimenting with business models, such as worker-owned factories, joint ventures or in-home sewing that avoids child-care issues.

Fair trade has roots in Alternative Trade Organizations, religiously-affiliated nonprofit groups that originated in the mid-20th century to aid developing countries. Many companies today maintain faith-based connections, but for-profit companies are becoming more common, at 62 percent of FTF membership.

The movement, relatively new to the U.S., is well established in Europe, through organizations such as International Federation for Alternative Trade, which originally focused in part on post-World War II refugees.

“Europeans are much more aware of it. Fair trade products are all over the stores,” said Sam Carpenter, manager, Global Gifts, an Indianapolis, Ind., store selling fair trade merchandise. “There’s never been as big a push for national awareness here.”

That is changing, as the cause is gaining popularity, endorsed by celebrities and college students, similar to the “Save the Rainforest” movement popularized by Sting and others in the Eighties. Hollywood stars, including Martin Sheen, are advocates and bands, such as Coldplay, have held benefit concerts.

Consumer interest in fair trade issues exploded after the sweatshop controversy of the past decade, especially on college campuses, spawning student organizations such as United Students for Fair Trade, based at Georgetown University, and others.

In 2000, the movement got a jolt from coffee, which underwent fair trade certification using standardized criteria by TransFair USA, which monitors and labels fair trade products. Certified coffee grossed total sales of $64 million in 2000 and is now in mainstream grocery stores and coffee shops from Starbucks to Whole Foods. Certification is extending to tea, chocolate and other food products.

Despite the buzz, the official fair trade movement is generally below the radar screen of big apparel companies. But the issues addressed — labor, wages, etc. — are very much in the forefront for companies that produce off-shore, which is almost everybody.Concerned about the sweatshop image in the global apparel industry, the American Apparel and Footwear Association instituted a factory certification program, “Worldwide Responsible Apparel Production,” in 1999. Today, the independently run program has 1,174 participating factories in 79 countries, with 479 certified. An AAFA spokeswoman, who wasn’t aware of the official fair trade movement, stressed that “companies have to be socially responsible today, as retailers and consumers are demanding it.”

At a Saks Inc. shareholders meeting in Birmingham, Ala., in June, R. Brad Martin, chief executive officer, told a shareholder who introduced a motion for more independent monitoring of overseas manufacturing, “We are on the same page of this very important issue. We have a team in place, and we’re open to any suggestions to help us do better.” The motion was defeated.

“Big companies, like Nike, have made efforts, but haven’t gone far enough,” said Chris O’Brien, managing director of Co-op America, with 50,000 members. “We welcome collaboration with conventional industries, but our members are true pioneers who go into business first and foremost to make social change.”

Owners of companies involved in fair trade repeatedly stress a mission that puts social issues above the bottom line. In overseas areas with vast poverty and unemployment, companies often employ mostly women, paying more than factory wages and implementing programs that seek to empower employees. Their stories include:

  • “Ants that Moved Mountains,” a video chronicle of Nicaraguan women who physically built a factory and established a worker-run cooperative to make T-shirts and camisoles for Ypsilanti, Mich.-based Maggie’s Organics.

  • Marketplace India, Evanston, Ill., employing 480 women near Delhi, India, who make apparel in their homes, learn design and computer skills, and participate in consciousness-raising groups on women’s issues.

  • A People United, Baltimore, Md., which enabled 100 workers’ previously uneducated children to attend private schools in Nepal.

    Yet, business owners acknowledge difficulties. Survival takes a balance of social consciousness and business savvy.

    “We’re a business first, and we have to fit in the mainstream,” said Pushpika Freitas, president, Marketplace Handwork of India, an Evanston, Ill., manufacturer with $1 million in annual sales through catalogs and 140 retail accounts nationwide. “We’re not a charity organization. We watch trends and sales and always try to broaden our niche.”Along with hand-dyed batik fabrics and embroidered dresses, vests, shirts and sarongs, the company is updating styling and recently introduced a basics line for versatility.

    Ten Thousand Villages carries Marketplace and other fair trade companies. With 95 stores nationwide, Ten Thousand Villages imports and wholesales products, with 25 percent apparel and accessories, along with home, gifts and crafts items. Production is in 32 countries by 113 groups, including worker cooperatives. Sales, at $14.6 million, grew 16 percent for fiscal 2003, and have increased at least 15 percent each year since 1996, when the organization was renamed Ten Thousand Villages, according to Juanita Fox, media coordinator, Ten Thousand Villages.

    Begun in 1946 by a volunteer from the Mennonite Central Committee as Self-Help Crafts, the group originally employed Puerto Rican seamstresses, imported garments, and evolved into retail in the Seventies. Today, stores are nonprofit, often controlled by a board of directors. Profits go back into the company, usually to help sustain off-shore manufacturing. Produced in countries such as India and Bangladesh, clothing is exotic and ethnic, in batiks and silks with lots of prints, embellishment and embroidery. From silk scarves to sarongs and sundresses, items retail under $100.

    Jewelry, one of the fastest-growing categories, has the same look, feel and price range as apparel, from 50-cent jute rings to $100 silver and topaz necklaces. And the recent demand for ethnic looks in the fashion mainstream has boosted sales.

    “We see three-page spreads in The New York Times on Indian looks at Nordstrom. We have the real thing, at much lower prices,” said Joanne Ranck Dirks, manager, Ten Thousand Villages in Ephrata, Pa. With annual sales of $1.7 million, the store serves ethnic cuisine in a tea room, and hosts educational seminars. Stores typically attract women ages 35 to 60. But more fashion-oriented products, along with the attraction of the fair trade movement, is drawing a younger clientele.

    “Customers are charmed by the ethnic quality of the fashion and by the fair trade issue,” claimed Susanne Donoghue, store manager of a 2,600-square-foot Ten Thousand Villages store in Evanston, Ill. Blue Hand, a Wilmington, N.C. apparel manufacturer, sells exclusively to 30 Ten Thousand Villages stores. Owner Tracy Tang produces in a company-owned factory in Bali.“U.S. mills won’t do small runs,” said Tang. “In Bali, through cottage industries, we can test pieces and help women at the same time.” Workers make “three to four times factory wages,” said Tang, who increased pay after the October 2002 terrorist bombing left some workers’ family members without jobs. Blue Hand’s capri pants, tapered dresses with off-shoulder necklines, and spaghetti-strap tunics, target a young, fashion customer.

    “These aren’t just sack dresses and hippie styles,” said Tang. Wholesaling around $25, bestsellers are sarongs in 12 styles and 20 fabric choices. “Nobody wore sarongs three years ago, now we can’t make enough of them,” she said. Off-shore manufacturing in itself is rife with difficulties, from infrastructure problems to cultural, political and even weather issues that challenge on-time deliveries and quality. Fair trade companies, often independent start-ups, are subject to these and other hindrances, such as financial backing, that can discourage even the most socially-committed business owner.

    “We almost went broke many times before we learned about the culture there, the market here, and how to provide timely deliveries,” said Robert Gruber, owner of A People United, a 13-year-old Baltimore, Md., manufacturer under two labels, Tribe and Sweater Girl. Selling to 4,000 U.S. stores, including Nordstrom, A People United produces 40,000 units of cotton and hemp garments in Nepal and sweaters in factories near Delhi, India, for a combined $1.2 million in annual sales. Gruber, a former lawyer who studied public health at Johns Hopkins University, said the sending of workers’ 102 children to private schools meant more than financial gains.

    “This is a spiritual movement,” he said. “Education leads to economic development, which leads to public health.”

    An example of the connection of worker’s rights and environmental issues is Maggie’s Organics, a line of cotton T-shirts, camisoles and accessories. Bena Burda, president/owner, was primarily interested in producing organic cotton garments in the U.S., but ended up establishing a worker’s cooperative for Nicaraguan women after Hurricane Mitch in 1998.

    “We wanted to produce domestically, but lost five U.S. contractors in 18 months in the late Nineties,” she said. Working with a U.S. charity organization in Nicaragua, she organized 20 women, who built a factory themselves over an 18-month period. Today, 19 women are employed, with 21 on a waiting list for the worker-run cooperative.“Problems there are ongoing, from infrastructure to the government, which is a moving target, with constantly changing rules and regulations,” she said. “But the positive is the women, who take pride in their work. They came up with a packing, labeling and tracking system that worked better than anything we could have devised.”

    Sara Cross, owner of Coolnotcruel, a New York City-based women’s apparel line, who is also a fair trade advocate and spokeswoman, said consumer awareness of fair trade has surpassed that of the mainstream media.

    “Other than making fun of protesters at World Trade Organization meetings, the media devotes little time to these issues,” she claimed, admitting that anti-sweatshop extremists have polarized big business and fair trade activists. While agriculture, especially coffee, has made fair trade a priority, the issue is still in its infancy in the apparel industry.

    “The garment industry, with the exception of a few innovative companies, is stuck in old methods of business,” she said. “There needs to be a whole shift in thinking. Business needs to learn that you can be socially conscious and still make a profit.”

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