Controversial Post: Is Fair Trade Really the Answer to Ethical Consumerism?

Flashback Summer - Controversial Post: Is Fair Trade Really the Answer to Ethical Consumerism?

Today I'm happy to share a guest post by Mary of Verily Merrily Mary. I love her blog because she boldly tackles hard issues and facilitates lots of good discussion, and today she's here to start a conversation about something many of us fashion lovers have pondered long and hard: ethical consumerism and fair trade.

It’s no secret that sweatshops have injustice threaded into the fabrics they produce. It is also no secret that virtually every piece of clothing that makes its way into the West is stitched with these fabrics. Along with these articles of clothing, the production of shoes and accessories are almost always problematic. But three years ago, I came across what I perceived to be the solution to sweatshops, a solution that would be one step forward in the fight for social justice in the supply and mass production of merchandise.

The CEO of a certain company came to my university to present their mission and how their bags and accessories were different from what the general public would typically buy. She mentioned that her company is fair trade certified, one that trains artisans abroad to make products for their company. Unlike sweatshops, workers in “Third World Countries” work fair hours and receive fair compensation for their labor. No child is exploited. No person receives cheap pay. Essentially, they go with the “teach a man to fish” approach and the lives of the workers are changed for good.

Many people believe that companies like these are the solution to ending the existence of sweatshops as we know it. They are the beacon of hope for workers in poorer countries that could otherwise be exploited or jobless. And as such, companies like these urge those of us in the West to do the best we can to purchase their products. Others go a step further and say that we should make it a goal to live off of fair trade products only. And by doing this, we are living a truly ethical consumer lifestyle.

On the surface, this sounds pleasant and inspiring, an undertaking that makes shopping an act of social justice instead of your everyday, run-of-the-mill consumerism. But if anyone is familiar with fair trade clothing, one of the things that makes them distinctly different from sweatshop clothing is their price. Since the artisans are getting their fair share and suppliers are not being grossly ripped off of the natural resources needed to make the products, the retail price tends to be expensive. For example, what would normally be a $15 pair of pants could be $40 or even more. Your average consumer would likely have a hard time affording it. When looking at the United States alone, 25% to 66% of those living in America are in the middle class. 45 million other Americans live below the poverty line. A fair trade only lifestyle would be especially hard to keep up for those in this demographic.

Since Fair Trade companies are their own entity and are not affiliated with sweatshops, they typically do not get involved in the social justice issues that contribute to making sweatshops a more ethical place to work. According to this article, since the United States is the most demanding of cheap clothing from sweatshops, it is up to U.S. department stores who sell their products to make sure that children are not exploited, factories are safe, and people earn the wage that they deserve. Fortunately, there are some companies that are putting pressure on their supply chains to make sure workers are treated fairly. All this to say, it takes more than purchases from fair trade companies to advocate for those who work in sweatshops.

Often times, conversations about sweatshops are talked about outside of the United States and the Western world. Reality is that there are exploitative sweatshops inside of the United States despite the fact that we have laws in the United States that protect workers. Obviously, purchasing from fair trade companies whose suppliers are foreign has no connection to making sure sweatshops in U.S. soil have just conditions and a just wage.
Clearly, the situation concerning social justice in the textile industry is multifaceted. While purchasing from fair trade companies contributes positively to the movement of justice, a lot more is required for an overhaul of the entire industry where exploitation is non-existent.

Given what you know about fair trade and sweatshops, what are your thoughts on social justice in textile factories? What are some initiatives or movements that could contribute to a better working conditions for textile workers and an affordable price for those who buy from them?

About the Blogger

Mary is a 20-something millennial trying to survive the post-grad life much like other millennials are doing. She is a bi-tribal (Efik & Igbo) Nigerian-Canadian-American third culture kid (TCK) with Nigeria as her place of birth and sunny, Southern California as her current home. She is a storyteller and a writing coach at Verily Merrily Mary who uses her stories and insights to spark cultural conversations. As a writing coach she equips and emboldens difference makers to use the power of the written word to affect change.


  1. I'll start the conversation! I agree with Mary; I don't think fair trade would solve all the problems in fashion manufacturing. It is helpful, but oftentimes it doesn't take a lot of other issues into consideration. Fair trade businesses are usually run by Westerners that partner with locals in other countries. This requires a demand from Western buyers to keep everyone in business, and that's really not dependable. Just one thought to get the ball rolling!

    1. A demand for fair trade merchandise would require that a substantial amount of Westerners become okay with paying more for their clothing. You're so right; that is not dependable. Humans are naturally selfish and it is easy to distance the pain of others when it is so far out of reach. Thanks for commenting, Emileigh. And thank you again for allowing me to write here and swap posts with me! :)

  2. I know another choice posited has been to buy US only, but then that takes away any income from poverty-stricken countries.

    Also, I wonder if there would be a balance between fair trade and ultra cheap prices if the big businesses changed. Small business have to charge more, period because of lack of bulk buying. And big business can afford to lower the profit to benefit workers since very little money trickles down to workers.

    Another thing to consider is our perception of need. No one really wants to face it, but Americans are very materialistic and trend obsessed (we pretty much make a lot of items disposable; I think there is a book about how our fashion is basically disposable) and we do not NEED over half the stuff we own and that includes clothes. Only a few generations ago, clothes took a larger portion of a family's budget, but people had fewer of them. They also were likely of higher quality.

    1. I agree! It could definitely help lower-income families if our views on clothing changed. We don't NEED so many outfits! And you're right, paying a bit more for fewer clothing items could be a good solution to help balance clothing costs and affordability.

    2. Fast fashion is a HUGE problem. I have some family who buy a new outfit any chance they can get, and that is just crazy to me. I remember reading an article about how we should staying paying A LOT for clothing, like makes you sweat bullets and consider if you actually need the article of clothing in your wardrobe expressive. Of coarse the more expensive an item is doesn't mean it treats it's workers or animals better. A lot of expensive brands get caught using sweat shops or get their fur from a place busted by PETA for skinning an animal alive.

      Truthfully it is hard to make sure everything is "ethically" sourced. There are lots of step in fashion. Getting the raw materials, making thread, making fabric, making the designs, clothes, and selling. My Mother in Law works for one of the few fabric companies in the US that still has their mill in the United States (Sunbury Designs if you are wondering) but they make pretty much just textiles for outdoor use, furniture, etc. They have a more high end price tag, and my Mother says it is hard to compete. In the end even the high end companies still aren't looking to spend that much. And even still I asked where they get the thread for the fabric, and she had no clue. I am discrediting their whole company, just pointing out how hard it is to define "ethically sourced"

    3. "Truthfully it is hard to make sure everything is 'ethically' sourced." Great point, Jennifer! Something I forgot to mention in my response to Livia is that there have been issues of companies paying their undocumented immigrant employees below minimum wage because managers can blackmail them if they wanted to. We're just taking the company's word that they are ethical since the USA has strict working laws. But they could totally be breaking it in this manner. One thing I included in Livia's comment is that ethics goes beyond just making sure people are given a fair wage. Also, interesting detail about your mother in law's job. I think being 100% ethical really just isn't in the cards for how our consumerism is set up globally. I wish this could change. :( Thanks for your thoughts, Jennifer.

  3. I am the guest poster and I was just going through Emileigh's controversial posts and came across this one and noticed that it did not show my response to you, Livia. Then I remembered that, when I responded a few weeks ago, I was halfway through proofreading my long response to your insightful comment and I had to take care of something immediately and then I forgot to continue reading and hit publish. I also rewrote my thoughts here just now and accidentally hit "sign out" instead of "publish." Oh Anyway, my honest, sincerest apologies if anyone thought I was being avoidant to responding here. It was purely unintentional. I thoroughly enjoy interacting with readers no matter where I have the honor of writing.

    I am happy that you brought up the buy USA only option, Livia! I actually intentionally left that detail out seeing if someone would bring it up and so I am glad you did! Also, it is applicable to me because I actually had an obsession with fair trade and USA made products. It goes without saying that being fair trade and USA-only is tough to balance on a university budget. College life is one in which stretching your dollar as much as you can is basically the way to survive but I was willing to pay a little more with fair trade and USA only items. It is also worth noting that I am not really a materialistic individual and interestingly enough, I did not really notice it until I went all in with fair trade and USA-only clothing. In fact, one of my favorite brands at the time was American Apparel, that is before the CEO became all gross. The CEO was known to have been sexually lewd with his female models. Plus, there was an insane increase in the objectification of the models which made people upset. I eventually stopped buying from them because of his nastiness. I suppose this demonstrates that the ethics of a company goes beyond making sure that the workers are financially compensated for their work.

    During university, I also made sure to buy from thrift shops. In it's own way, it is ethical as the stores I patronized supported local charities, were small businesses themselves (thus not contributing the huge capitalist tanks), and environmentally friendly as I was buying secondhand. The awesome upside is that it doesn't break the bank. Plus, it's always a fun adventure to explore thrift stores and walk out with unique items that fit my sense of style.

    I think the higher prices for fair trade and USA-only items could be argued as a good reason to go purchase them because you become extremely conscious with how much you consume since being excessive could break the bank. However, you do bring up a good point that not contributing to countries like China would drastically negatively impact their economy. They depend on our country's materialism to thrive since their labor and the cost to buy their products is so low. But I cannot be blind to the fact that people have committed suicide, lost limbs, and suffered terrible illnesses because of the conditions in those places. Hearing about it makes my heart so very sad so it makes sense that there are companies who go to those such countries to start up fair trade initiatives. I think it is one of those Catch-22 situations: get a tiny wage with a poor/dangerous quality of life or have no pay in such conditions as a result of a global fair trade shift, hoping that US companies have to fairly pay factory workers and those who have to extract the raw materials. I think this is the mindset that those who are 'pro-fair trade/USA-made only' people have. But my hope is more of those large companies can see that substantial measures need to be taken in those countries immediately before it even gets to that point. Thanks for reading and for your insightful comment, Livia!