GREENVILLE, Delaware — The fashion industry employs nearly 40 million people around the world. However, a large majority of those people work in unsafe and hazardous conditions for far too little pay in what is being called “modern slavery.” Not all clothing manufacturers support these inhumane practices. One organization, Ten Thousand Villages, created a demand for ethically-sourced products called Fair Trade.
Major name brands such as H&M, Zara and Forever 21 produce their clothing in factories based in Bangladesh, China, Turkey and the United States among other places. What they all have in common is the fact that they underpay and overwork their employees, with daily wages ranging from $3 to $10 a day in sweatshop-like conditions.
Despite the United Nations and the International Labor Organization recognizing fair wages and safe working conditions as a fundamental human right, big fashion corporations often exploit workers, especially those in underdeveloped countries, as cheap labor. This is mostly to the credit of the ever-growing “fast fashion” mindset that has taken over the modern fashion industry.
The concept focuses on producing high-quality clothes at rapid speed in vast amounts so that retailers can sell them at ridiculously low prices to consumers. But, at what cost does “fast fashion” come for those who are actually making the clothes? These people spend countless hours in unsafe and hazardous conditions for ridiculously low pay.
The Birth of Fair Trade
In an industry obsessed with “fast fashion,” a more equitable alternative lies just beneath the surface. It is essential to create safer economic opportunities for people whose home countries lack the resources to sustain economic development without the exploitative nature of multi-billion-dollar companies. This is Fair Trade, a global market that pays workers fair wages, ensures safe working conditions and fosters sustainable community development.
The origins of Fair Trade began in 1946 on a Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) missionary trip in Puerto Rico. MCC member, Edna Ruth Byler, saw the potential market for hand-made products when she brought home and sold several hand-sewn items made by Puerto Rican women. The embroidery pieces not only created a demand for one-of-a-kind items but also created a source of income for women who lacked an economic platform.
As demand grew for these items, Byler broadened her inventory, buying items from Palestinian refugees and impoverished Haitians. What began as a one-woman operation quickly transformed into the first Fair Trade supplier in the world and a business that created the foundation for a global Fair Trade network.
Ten Thousand Villages
The demand was so large that Byler opened up her own shop called “Self Help Crafts” founded in 1970. Today, the shop is known as Ten Thousand Villages and has more than 70 stores across the United States (plus another 37 in Canada). It sources its products from more than 20,000 artisans living in 30 developing countries around the globe.
According to the World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO), Fair Trade organizations, such as Ten Thousand Villages, are based on “dialogue, transparency and respect.” This is a movement that invests in partnerships that not only empower individuals, such as women, children, people with disabilities and many others, but empowers entire communities to help break the cycle of poverty in developing countries.
Above all, Fair Trade is committed to creating better trading conditions that are sustainable and help secure work for marginalized producers as well as the right to a fair wage. This process, however, would not work without consumers who are actively engaged in supporting these artisans and raising awareness about the benefits of a more equitable system of international trade.
Real Fair Trade Consumers
In Greenville, Delaware, Ten Thousand Villages customer Jessica told the Borgen Project that she likes to shop Fair-Trade because she feels “[…] it creates an instant connection between myself and someone across the world; someone who I don’t necessarily know, but a person I get to help make a living.” Fair Trade products connect the consumer to the artisan in was that “fast fashion” never can.
Another customer, Katelyn, told the Borgen Project, “It’s really easy to just walk into a store and buy something, and if that [product]is going to help someone who needs money for food, water, a house or [an]education—whatever—I just think it’s something small that can make a huge impact on someone else’s life.” Supporting Fair Trade products can make a huge difference for the people making the items.
People Supporting a Trade
Above all, the WFTO calls for more equity in international trade, an institution that, from a historical standpoint, exploited impoverished people for cheap labor. According to Ten Thousand Villages’ CEO Carl Lundblad, one of the organization’s core values is facilitating a sense of empowerment for its artisans. For Ten Thousand Villages, Fair Trade is about celebrating craft and artisanship while “facilitating a market that creates opportunities for individuals to earn their own income.”
Since its inception, Ten Thousand Villages has acquired more than 300 different partners dedicated to ethical sourcing of Fair Trade. Together, this Fair-Trade network fulfills a high demand for ethically sourced products in the United States, Canada and Europe. It is providing people in impoverished areas with an economic platform and new opportunities to improve their standards of living and feel empowered as marketable artisans.