Over the past few years, a host of certifications have cropped up to assure consumers that the clothing they're buying is ethically made. But long before there was the Nest seal, or B Corp, or GOTS, there was Fair Trade. Founded by Paul Rice in 1998, Fair Trade USA was born out of Rice's experience trying to build more equitable trade relationships for coffee farmers in Nicaragua and modeled on the fair trade method first developed in Europe. In the time since, Fair Trade has expanded to include a whole host of other kinds of products, including clothing, and has become one of the best-known third-party certifiers in the world.
Today, Fair Trade USA works with major retailers like Patagonia, Athleta, Target and REI in addition to smaller boutique brands to certify that garments are made under ethical conditions. Fair Trade's initiatives seek to make the supply chain more transparent, give factory workers say over what kind of community development happens in their area and set wages so that laborers are not subject to wild market price fluctuations.
The week of Fair Trade USA's 20th Anniversary falls in October, so we caught up with Rice at a Fair Trade celebration in New York City to hear how the organization moved from coffee to clothes and why the movement will never stop listening to its critics. Read on for our full conversation below.
How did Fair Trade first move into the apparel space?
We were invited. We'd been focusing on food and farmers and sustainable agriculture for most of our history, and a few years ago, some apparel brands and anti-sweatshop activists said, "Could this model that you've developed for coffee and tea apply to the world of garments and apparel?"
We did research into labor conditions and came to the conclusion that a lot of codes of conduct and auditing models that are in place today don't really tell us what's actually happening in the factory the other 364 days a year that the auditor's not there. This was right after Rana Plaza when all those workers were killed in Bangladesh. That was a pivotal moment.
So we decided to go into apparel. We're so excited with the momentum that we have with Patagonia and Prana and Athleta and now J.Crew. A few highly regarded brands are making big bets. It's not a dabble; it's not like, "Let's launch one little line of Fair Trade." These are companies that are saying, "We believe in this, and we believe it's going to be good for our business, so we're gonna go in big." Patagonia, for example, is already I think 50 percent Fair Trade and they want to do more every year. With all these other brands, it's really inspiring to see them come in not just because Fair Trade is consistent with their values as a company, but because they think it'll be part of their future business success.
Is it right that with regards to clothing, Fair Trade focuses more on certifying factories than the agricultural products that feed into the fashion supply chain?
Yeah. We do have a few people doing Fair Trade certified cotton, and that's really about the wages and the price that go back to the farmers. But take for example Patagonia. They're doing all kinds of non-natural fibers. So most of the apparel work we're doing is focused on ensuring safer working conditions for factories, and better wages and living conditions for workers.
How has Fair Trade evolved over time?
When we started 20 years ago, just a handful of companies thought that an American consumer would pay an extra penny a cup to help some farmer. Most companies were really skeptical about this notion that consumers wanted something like Fair Trade. And today, not only do we feel that we've kind of demonstrated the appetite of consumers for great products that also change the world, but increasingly it's mainstream. The biggest shift that I would say is in brands and retailers embracing Fair Trade and things like it as a reflection that we as a public want products that are reassuring us that workers and the environment aren't harmed.
How have you seen the world of ethical product certification shift in the 20 years that you've been doing this?
"Non-GMO" and "local" and all of these things have emerged, which I think speaks to the appetite of ordinary consumers to know more about the products that we buy. Americans are increasingly asking, "What's in the food that I'm buying? Is it safe? Is it healthy? Is it sustainable? Is it fair?"
We're still not the majority — the conscious consumer phenomenon, depending on whose research you believe, is between 20 and 50 percent of American shoppers who are, on a regular or occasional basis, looking for products that have either environmental or social attributes. But either way, I think everyone would agree that it's a macro trend. Millennials and Gen Z have high expectations of companies. I think that gives us a glimpse of the new normal that we can expect. When I look ahead to the next 20 years, I think the norm will be for companies to tell us how they sourced the product that we bought from them.
Like any sort of organization that reaches the scale that Fair Trade has reached, you've had your detractors. How do you handle the criticism leveled at you and Fair Trade USA?
The strength of the Fair Trade movement is that we are a multi-stakeholder movement. When we develop our standards, for example, we consult not just with companies, but with consumer activist groups, farmer groups and unions. We have to listen to the broader stakeholder base and get their input on the standards that we set and the programs that we develop.
I like to think of Fair Trade as a platform on which many different actors can stand together. The interests of a farm worker and a retailer aren't identical, but they do overlap. It's that common ground that we're building on. I don't have any illusions that we're gonna please everyone all the time, but we always listen and we always make sure to get back to our stakeholders with whatever we agree to disagree on. We want everyone who is a part of our movement to always feels heard even if we don't end up going in that direction.
We're trying to innovate the Fair Trade model from what, 50 years ago, was born in Europe as a very small concept. It was a "small is beautiful" concept — small farmer co-ops, small farmer artisans, small companies. We've actually dared to believe that Fair Trade could be part of the mainstream consumer and retailer experience. We don't want Fair Trade products to only be available in Whole Foods, we want them to be available in Walmart. Why not?
That means that we have challenged that "small is beautiful" model and dared to believe that fairness could be part of the ethos of our society and our business practices. Inevitably that kind of freaked some people out. And that's ok — that dialogue is a really important part of our model. So we never ignore our critics. We try to engage and try to bring them along.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.