News Update

Producers & Merchants Cotton On to Fair Trade

Posted May 30th 2011

Article for Brandon Sun “Small World” Column, Sunday, May 29th, 2011, by Zack Gross

If you are already drinking fair trade coffee and tea, and eating fair trade chocolate and dried fruit, get ready for the next wave of fair products, clothing, from cotton grown organically and produced ethically. The fair trade movement in Europe, North America and “Down Under” is currently focusing on fair trade clothing, in a “Show Your Label” campaign, and merchants are beginning to show ethically produced t-shirts, pants, dresses and accessories.

Cotton was first cultivated 7,000 years ago in the Indus River Valley, what is now Pakistan and India. It then was spread by producers and merchants west to the Mediterranean, and some cotton fibres have even been dated to ancient times in Mexico. When cotton was introduced to northern and western Europe in the Middle Ages, rivaling wool as the cloth of choice, people couldn’t imagine what type of sheep produced this new fabric.

With the advent of the Industrial Revolution and the might of the British Navy, cotton continued to be produced in tropical climates but was brought raw to northern factories. Unfortunately, as is true with many commodities that we take for granted in our daily lives, the cotton industry – from field to wearer – has been a source of oppression for some and a source of wealth for others. When “cotton became king” in the southern United States, it was the labour of millions of African slaves under brutal conditions that powered that system. And when the needle trade helped to create the US’s industrial might, it also led to tragedies/crimes like the New York Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911.

Estimates are that 100 million families in seventy countries around the world depend on cotton production to earn a living. However, cotton is the “most sprayed” crop globally (coffee is second) with 10% of pesticides going to just this one crop, while the irrigation of cotton is a major source of global water depletion. As world cotton prices are low, workers along the chain (farmers, plantation workers, spinners, sewing personnel, and so on) are all paid very poorly and toil long hours in sweatshop conditions.

Low international prices are in part caused by the growth of synthetic fibres, such as polyester and nylon. In the 1940s, cotton dominated fibre use (88%) but today has fallen to just 40%. Cotton is heavily subsidized by producer or processing country governments, such as the US, the European Union and China, putting further pressure on cotton prices in developing countries.

As with other commodities, a fair trade system has been created over the past ten years that allows some producers to live a more healthy and dignified life. The international fair trade standards for cotton include producers being organized as associations or cooperatives of small family farms; a minimum guaranteed price being paid directly to producer groups; environmental standards restricting the use of agrochemicals and encouraging sustainable methods; no forced labour (often child labour) being allowed; lines of credit being extended to producer groups up to 60% of the purchase price; and a social premium being paid to co-ops and associations for social and economic investments such as educational and health services, purchase of implements and tools, and financing individual loans to members.

A number of countries are identified by Fair Trade Canada as hosting fair trade cotton producer groups, including India, Mali and Peru. To maintain their Fair Trade Certification, groups in these countries must allow on-site inspection of their operations to ensure that they adhere to appropriate policies and practices. Companies and communities doing the value added work on cotton must also be checked to make sure that these standards not only apply to growing cotton, but also to processing. As well, distributors selling the final clothing product are audited in Canada and elsewhere to make sure that they treat their employees fairly and don’t claim fair trade status for goods that don’t qualify.

The unaware shopper might be impressed to see labels in clothing stores that read “Made in Honduras” or in India and mistakenly believe that these items are fair trade. The fact is that without clear fair trade labeling, clothing from “overseas” is generally sweatshop grade. Until now, most fair trade clothing was more easily found on-line, but the in-store presence is growing as are green clothing products made with bamboo and hemp. The price difference is not that great, comparing good quality clothing of any brand. Companies such as and are worth looking into. Schools in particular are embracing fair trade apparel in order to live out their values of sustainability and citizenship.

It has been said, in reference to fair trade, that we are (or believe in) what we eat. The same is true of our clothing – we are what we wear. And more people are choosing to show their label wearing fair trade – doing their duty with their duds! It’s another way that we can make a difference in people’s lives around the world.

Zack Gross works for the Manitoba Council for International Cooperation (MCIC), a coalition of over forty international development organizations active in our province.

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This program was made possible with financial support of the Government of Manitoba,
and was undertaken with the financial support of the Government of Canada provided through Global Affairs Canada (GAC)

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