PARIS — Ethical fashion is broadening its scope as major European retailers respond to heightened consumer concerns about apparel manufacturing that damages the environment or violates human rights.
British giant Marks & Spencer began selling its own fair trade-certified cotton line in March, which guarantees higher prices for cotton producers. High Street chain Topshop’s initial one-month trial of ethical brand People Tree was so successful at its Oxford Street flagship that it is doubling the size of the concession and extending it through the summer.
In France, PPR-owned catalogue retailer La Redoute is following up an initial run of 200,000 fair trade cotton T-shirts in 2005 with an eight-unit collection of activewear this year. And Galeries Lafayette’s Boulevard Haussmann flagship launched a fair trade cotton section featuring brands such as Amor Lux in April.
“Eighty percent of our consumers wanted to know more about how clothing products were made,” said Mike Barry, head of corporate responsibility at Marks & Spencer, citing research the firm commissioned with London-based market researcher Yougov. The Yougov study found more than one-third of customers were willing to put clothes back on the rack based on the country of origin or what they had heard about particular brands and how they sourced clothing.
One hundred million households worldwide are involved in cotton production, according to the U.K.’s Fair Trade Foundation, including those in some of the poorest countries where small producers are most vulnerable to price fluctuations.
When prices fall, the environmental impacts rise as farmers use more chemicals to increase yields. It is estimated the cotton industry is responsible for 10 percent of the world’s pesticide use.
“Until recently, very few questions were asked about how cotton was produced,” Barry said. “Now, people are beginning to realize there are very serious social and environmental issues associated with cotton production.”
Elisabeth Cazorla, La Redoute’s apparel director, said, “We believe [fair trade cotton] answers, and will answer more and more, consumers’ demands.”
That growing consumer consciousness already is translating into big gains for makers of fair trade fashions.
In 2004, ethical clothing sales in the U.K. grew 30 percent to 43 million pounds, or $76.6 million, according to The Co-operative Bank’s Ethical Consumerism Report. Those figures represent a fraction of overall household expenditures on clothing, which totaled 44.6 billion pounds, or $79.5 billion at current exchange, in 2005, according to the U.K.’s National Statistics office.
The consumerism report cited the emergence of a fair trade trademark for cotton, introduced in November, as a possible catalyst for future growth in the ethical clothing sector.
Major retailers are eager to capture their fair share of that growth.
“Topshop introduced fair trade labels as a response to consumer requests and also the interest expressed by several members of our buying teams,” said Karyn Fenn, the chain’s buying director.
As well as introducing fashion brand People Tree, Topshop will launch three fair trade babywear labels, People Tree, Gossypium and Hug, in its new Topshop Mini section this month.
Fenn said a positive consumer response to People Tree and jewelry brand Made means Topshop is “continuing to work with fair trade labels and is looking at some exclusive future collaborations” in this area.
Safia Minney, founder and director of People Tree, said its success at trendy Topshop suggests “that fair trade fashion has broken all the stereotypes and is at the cutting edge of fashion retail. It marks the beginning of a big change in the fashion industry, and to the unfair structures that currently have such a detrimental effect on millions of workers.”
Thousands of those workers already are reaping the benefits of higher demand for fair trade cotton, which has increased twelvefold year-on-year, according to Max Havelaar, a foundation that sets the European standard for fair trade. The number of its producers this year has quadrupled to 28,000, generating 4,000 tons of cotton. That compares with the 700 tons produced by 6,100 cooperatives a year ago. The Western and Central Africa-based producers will pocket a total revenue of 4.2 million euros, or $5.2 million, compared with the estimated 1.5 million euros, or $1.9 million, that amount of regular cotton would have cost.
While fair trade lines are still less profitable for retailers, they can burnish an image; for example, Marks & Spencer’s look-behind-the-label campaign at the end of January, which included the announcement of its forthcoming line of fair trade T-shirts and socks and featured slogans such as “Our coffee won’t leave a bitter taste in your mouth. It’s Fairtrade.”
“Before the launch of the campaign, M&S’s corporate reputation had been heading downhill,” according to a Yougov Brand Index poll in February. “Since the [ads] debuted, M&S’s corporate reputation in the supermarket sector has recovered by eight points,” and the firm gained two points in terms of its fashion reputation.
La Redoute said its fair trade foray is not a marketing strategy.
“It is not simply a question of image, but an expression of what La Redoute is about: modernity and innovation, trust and reassurance,” said La Redoute’s Cazorla. “Customers are not surprised [by the fair trade offer]. It’s legitimate.”
Both La Redoute and Marks & Spencer aim to make fair trade as profitable as regular apparel. “We are not a charity,” Cazorla said. “We need to make profits. The ambition is to arrive at the same profit margins, and that the consumer accepts a price which corresponds to that.”
Barry said, “The price of fair trade cotton should come down without the farmer getting any less money, but through operational efficiency.”
A recent study by the French Institute of Fashion suggested that retailer forays into fair trade are reassuring for consumers in terms of quality, price accessibility and opening up the market. The institute’s consumer panel also was surprised by the variety of clothing items as well as the style, quality and softness of fair trade apparel.