Sunday, 20 July 2008

How 'fair' should Fairtrade go?

A couple of things have recently prompted me to ask this question. Firstly, seeing press adverts for Fairtrade Cotton T Shirts being sold by Sainsburys for £3 (M&S have been doing them for a fiver for a while now), my thought process went as follows:

1. Yay! Mainstream use of Fairtrade cotton!
2. Ooh, and low prices meaning it's commercially competitive, whilst still retaining ethical business practice.
3. Hang on, they only say that the cotton is Fairtrade. How are these made so cheaply?

Now, as anyone who watched Blood, Sweat and T Shirts can attest, the cotton harvesting and garment-making industries are two very separate enterprises, both of which can involve huge exploitation and unfair employment conditions. So it is entirely possible that a company could use certified Fairtrade cotton to make garments in sweat shops. I'm not saying that's the case here (especially as t shirts are so simple that they might only cost pence to make even at a fair price) and I shall endeavour to find out for sure. But it did make me aware of the risk of falling for potential pseudo-greenwashing; just because part of a process has been certified to be sound cannot guarantee the rest of it.

Onto my second issue: even when the wages are fair, is our 'work' as responsible consumers finished? So, the roof is sound and the water is clean, but what about other aspects of the working environment? American Apparel is a company that boasts good working conditions - its clothes are made exclusively in LA, by a fairly waged workforce predominantly made up of migrants who might otherwise be forced into lower paid work that doesn't provide the same healthcare benefits and union membership etc. All fine thus far.

But is there a dark side, after all. A while back, perusing AA's website, it did strike me that the way that some of the clothes were presented seemed to cross that line from 'sexy' to 'sleazy'. In the end, I put it down to perhaps me being an unfashionable prude, who didn't 'get' the art of couture. But it seems there might have been something in my instincts. There have been reports about the conduct of AA's CEO, Dov Charney. Several lawsuits have been filed against him, by his employees, for sexual harassment. Admittedly, none have led to an in-court settlement, but there seem to be quite a range of reports suggesting that Mr Charney is less than keen on keeping business and pleasure separate. Given that working for him is probably the only decent employment opportunity for many of his workforce, one might ask whether it is really fair for them to be subjected to such a working environment. What's an ethical consumer to do?


Anonymous said...

"what's an ethical consumer to do?" I dunno, it's a problem, isn't it?

You could lead a bunch of like-minded people out into the desert, and then lead them to a new country and give them a set of extensive rules designed a. to keep them trading amongst themselves and b. to keep their society just and fair, but I feel that this was probably a one-time-only social experiment. (Unless you count the settlement of Otago, but that was soon undermined by the Gold Rush - bang went the neighbourhood!)

We musn't be complacent, but we mustn't fool ourselves that heaven is achievable on earth, either. (That way lies totalitarianism.) So the only conclusion I've come to in years of agonizing over the provenance of cheap imports, is that I mustn't be an egregious user of the earth's resources. Oh, yes, and to donate to TEAR fund.



MistressofScience said...

It's frustrating to be obvious prey to these type of advertisers. I feel the need to research everything I want to purchase in such exhausting detail. I generally resort to using the internet but I'm still never sure it I should trust what I read.

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