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Fair Trade: Who Made Your Clothes?

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By Estefania Ziliani

· 7 min read

Sustainability always involves three pillars: environmental, economic and social. If these three are not equally addressed, it cannot be considered 'sustainable'. For this reason, when we talk about fashion, it is also necessary to ask ourselves the following questions: where do our clothes come from? Who made them and under what conditions?

Fair Trade and Its Importance for Fashion

Fair trade is a commercial system that seeks greater equity in international trade, based on "dialogue, transparency and respect". It focuses on sustainable development by offering better conditions and caring for the rights of producers and workers. More precisely, this implies that their creations come from ecological production models that help alleviate climate change.

Not polluting with pesticides and industrial inputs and not using transgenics is essential to climate mitigation, especially if this is added to responsibly managing resources (water, energy, etc.). It also pre-finances producers, protecting them from the fluctuations of commodities in the markets.

In addition to a fair salary, a "fair trade premium" is proposed that is democratically allocated to improvements in health, education, infrastructure, etc., allowing truly sustainable development in their communities. By respecting human and labor rights, fair trade pays for each step of the supply chain and manufacturing with dignity. Thus, it does not allow forced or child labor and promotes gender equality. At the same time, it establishes relationships of equity between producers, distributors, marketers and consumers.

Slow vs. fast

‘Fast fashion’ is the mass production and consumption system that has dominated the fashion market in recent years, encouraging unequal practices by seeking to produce garments in developing countries at very low prices. This is known as offshoring.

The concept of slow fashion appeared in opposition to fast fashion, placing itself at the antipode of the conventional model of mass production that uses resources without measuring the social and environmental impact that each action carried out generates.

In this way, time, resources, inputs and labor become more important through the process of slowing down, making slow fashion a more empathetic and sensitive practice with the environment.

Slow fashion not only involves designers and brands who seek to generate changes towards a greener future but also challenges those who buy these garments.

In the same way that slow fashion opposes fast fashion, fair trade comes to present a solution or alternative to the idea of ​​relocation, seeking to preserve, care for, and value the work done by each person involved in the chain of garment production, promoting regulated work and claiming local production. This is why fair trade seeks to revalue the trade and talent of the artisans' work, preserving them in the face of hyper-industrialized and homogenized fashion.

How Fair Trade Impacts the Relocalization of Fashion

Relocalization refers to the type of production that intentionally seeks to base production in countries or cities where conditions allow production costs to be reduced, where both the inputs and the wages of workers are of the lowest possible value, in order to achieve a higher value profit (lower price and cost per garment).

Offshoring as a methodology only benefits those who carry it out, where only the production-profit relationship is of interest, without considering the conditions to which workers are exposed.

This has a double impact: social and environmental. On the one hand, it is primarily responsible for the exploitation of workers in the textile industry, since large companies normally outsource production to other companies that offer the lowest possible cost, thus losing track and control of those who make the garments and in what conditions.

On the other hand, this action directly influences climate change and the environmental crisis we are going through.

"The adoption of this production system has turned fashion into the second most polluting industry in the world, responsible for the increase in CO2 emissions in the atmosphere."

EXTRA POINT: The great distance between textile suppliers, factories, and distribution and marketing points generates a constant and incessant transfer of garments around the world, directly resulting in an increase in the carbon footprint.

Fashion And Human Rights / "The Problem"

The World Trade Organization (WTO) and the International Labor Organization (ILO) warn that, since 1973, job insecurity and long-term unemployment have grown in the West. In particular, there are three easily-identifiable decreases in wages that coincide with great moments of relocation. One took place at the beginning of the 80s, due to market openings. The second occurred in the 90s with the Multi-Fiber Agreement (relocation to China and India, mainly). And the last one was in 2000, due to crises derived from neoliberal policies, towards Southeast Asia.

Since the end of the 1970s, entire industrial branches (textiles, technology, information technology, motors, services) have been relocated in various waves – in that decade and in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s – to countries with more lax (or practically non-existent) labor and environmental regulations. Here, they manufacture at a lower cost and with tax advantages sponsored by the Free Trade Agreements and the Free Export Zones, also called Free Trade Zones or Export Processing Zones, where they concentrate their production.

This has meant a fierce acceleration of the cycles and metabolisms of the hegemonic industry, increasing the socio-environmental impacts.

"Currently, in many parts of the world, the wages of manufacturers (between 70% and 90% of the workforce) represent a quarter or fifth of what they would need to live, thus seeing their human right to a decent wage violated".

Four of the most commonly-violated labor rights – non-discrimination, free association, unionization and collective bargaining – are also human rights. The industry even already manufactures in Ethiopia with lower labor costs, between 19 and 40 euros per month, with strenuous hours.

To make matters worse, during the pandemic, store closures, stoppages of orders and the promotion of digital commerce have exacerbated the situation. In many cases, women who sew for big brands are more precarious and vulnerable, as they have suffered defaults, dismissals, as well as unhealthy working conditions in the performance of their work.

The Solution

The fair trade system seeks greater equity in international trade, based on dialogue, transparency and respect. It focuses on sustainable development, by offering better conditions and caring for the rights of producers and workers.

This is achieved through the revaluation of each member of the production chain of a garment. Being able to identify the importance of each link in the chain, fair trade provides the necessary conditions and the fair salary that each party deserves, thus respecting their rights and considering them equals.

The 5 Axes Of Fair Trade

  1. Good working conditions and appropriate wages for each worker.
  1. Avoid and report child exploitation.
  1. Labor equality between men and women.
  1. Respect for the environment, through ethical and respectful practices with the environment where it is produced.
  1. Promote and value local economies and the work of communities.

Less Is More!

Although the prevailing darkness, both in low-cost and luxury fashion, prevents consumers from knowing the situation under which the vast majority of garments and accessories are made, they can still contribute to reformulating fashion. We must do so by putting life at the center of this model, supporting it with our money and consumption decisions, to redistribute wealth with less planetary deterioration.

The most conducive and decisive action that we can adopt is to buy only what is really necessary, lean towards ethical and aesthetic designs, and avoid falling into those needs created by the prevailing market. It is better to buy a few good items made with responsible practices, which favor and accompany us for a long time than to buy many outrageously cheap (or expensive) garments tinged with tragedy with predefined qualities and aesthetics to expire.


Measures to increase local production and automated production systems have the potential to enable greater sustainability and support the creation and development of a circular economy in the fashion industry. Apparel manufacturers that embrace new automation technologies to become faster and more sustainable are likely to be the winners of the future.


The key is to reduce consumption and seek to optimize the fashion value chain on two fronts: local production and automation.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

Photo by Hannah Morgan on Unsplash
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About the author

Estefania E. Ziliani is the Lawyer Specialist in Administrative Contracts at the Ministry of Economy of Argentina.

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