Think October’s just for pink ribbons? Think again. The month is also set aside to celebrate Fair Trade, that difficult-to-define yet increasingly important sustainable business practice which, identifies manufacturers who forge economic partnerships that can alleviate poverty, reduce inequality, and create opportunities for farmers and artisans. In the world of style, these typically third-world fair trade endeavors counter our first-world dependence on so-called “fast fashion,” which has outsourced our $3 trillion a year apparel industry to countries like China, which exports ridiculous amounts of pollution — along with “disposable” clothing like $2 t-shirts — to the United States.
“Scientists estimate that thirty percent of California’s particulate air pollution comes from across the Pacific,” said Linda Greer, director of the Health Program at NRDC and creator of its Clean by Design program. “[The Chinese] textile industry’s contribution to this soot is more than three billion tons per year [causing] cities across America to be in violation of air quality standards.” In addition, “more than half the mercury contaminating the fish that we catch off our shores and in our freshwater lakes comes from China,” she said. When it comes to the environmental impact of our biggest trade partner, “America is, unfortunately, downwind.”
Greer’s Clean by Design, which we first heard about from Angela Lindvall and which now has Walmart, H&M, Gap, Levi and Nike on its roster, has set its sights on cleaning up the Chinese textile and apparel industry by establishing business practices which reduce water pollution and energy use to help plants run more efficiently.
But fair trade businesses look at manufacturing from a different perspective, primarily that of local, community-based empowerment, which typically benefits the women who produce 76% of these goods. The stakes are incomprehensibly high: Many fair trade businesses combat human trafficking by creating opportunities for parents so that they don’t resort to selling their children’s labor or their children into slavery. And these opportunities do more than simply affect the community at hand: “Focusing on women and girls is the most effective way to fight global poverty and extremism,” wrote Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist Nicholas D. Kristof.
Peace and well-being through fashion? Now that’s a movement we can get behind.
For many sustainable designers, establishing fair trade wages and practices is just common sense. But it can be difficult to find out about their policies without reading the fine print. You can look for a TransFair USA logo or the phrase “A 100% Fair Trade Company,” which indicates membership in the Fair Trade Federation. However, some companies who genuinely support fair trade principles do so without certification—do your own research to determine whether their practices are legit. Here are some we found:
CLOTH UNITY GREEN SCARF ($45)
The mission behind CLOTH is big. Super-sized, in fact. Half of CLOTH’s profits return to displaced communities to provide employment, finance micro-loans, create community programs and change lives. The company seeks to align fashion, social change and sustainability by designing gorgeous accessories fair trade made in America by displaced women from all over the world. Like their upcycled cloth-wrapped wood bangles, or this super-soft bamboo Unity Green scarf, “lovingly made by Brigitte.” No exploitation required. CLOTH Unity Green Scarf ($45)
SSEKO DESIGNS SANDALS ($44)
Sseko Designs is—to us—the perfect fair trade success story. And it’s also an example of a company that isn’t Fair Trade Certified, yet still manages to dramatically affect the community in which it operates. Once upon a time, Liz Forkin was volunteering in Uganda when she met a group of recent high school graduates who lacked the funds to go to college. She designed a sustainable sandal from veggie-tanned leather and scrap material that they could manufacture in order to raise funds to pursue their degrees, named the line after the Ugandan word for laughter, and began marketing it in the United States. As Liz says, “These women will not be making sandals forever. The will go on to become doctors, lawyers and teachers who will bring change to a country that has been ravished by poverty and a 22-year-long war.” P.S. Liz went on to marry her business partner and now they’re on a year-long expedition to bring Sseko House Parties to cities across the nation. So maybe it’s a love story, too. SSeko Design Sandals ($44)
REBEKAH GREEN RECYCLED GOLD, FAIR TRADE PEARL EARRINGS ($95)
Classically beautiful, Rebekah Green’s collection of earrings—studs, drops and chandeliers—are exclusively made from recycled 14-karat gold with fair trade gemstones. And they’re surprisingly affordable, with prices starting at just $35 for delicate gold cherry studs, which were designed for kids, but had our EcoStilettoistas swooning. We’re also enamored of Rebekah’s milky white fair trade pearl studs—the perfect ladylike complement to the “Mad Men” inspired styles recently spotted on the runway.
Rebekah Green Recycled Gold Earrings ($95)
INDIGENOUS DESIGNS ORGANIC COTTON KIMONO SWEATER ($150)
Certified by TransFair USA, Indigenous Designs has dedicated more than 15 years to forging a global collaboration between artisans and consumers to support sustainable farmers and workers around the globe. The only use eco-fibers — peace silk, alpaca and merino wool from free ranging animals, and Organic Trade Association certified organic cotton. But while some designs in this arena tend towards the crunchy, Indigenous commissions the classically beautiful kind of clothes we’d like to wear every day. Case in point? This organic cotton kimono sweater. Just perfect. Indigenous Designs Organic Cotton Kimono Sweater ($150)
EXTRA SEED UPCYCLED SATIN BALLET FLATS ($38)
If change starts with one person, then Extra Seed is the perfect example. A native of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Zerihun G.mariam painstakingly crafts gorgeous, super-comfortable ballet flats from upcycled scrap fabric with recycled tire soles. We adore Extra Seed’s veggie-tanned leather, linen and hemp options, but we know we’ll be wearing these bright red satin vegan numbers every day from now until New Year’s. Extra Seed Upcycled Satin Ballet Flats ($38)
ANNIE O WIDE BELT $80
We’ve seen these embroidered belts before, and while they looked great with the Ralph Lauren white-shirt-and-gathered-skirt ensemble that indicated your mom was a high-end free spirit in the early ‘80s, typically they’re too skinny and rugged to float our boats today. Not so, Annie O, who designed this thick, beautifully embroidered wool waist-cincher that looks great with pretty much everything. All of Annie’s products are fair trade made by a domestic violence women’s cooperative in the Peruvian Andes from local and sustainable materials. Annie O Embroidered Belt ($80)
PROJECT 360 ECO TOTE ($44)
Upcycling and fair trade in action? We love it. Fair Wage Fair Trade Bags are a joint effort between Love This Planet and Project360, which was created in 2008 by Nick Sheinberg, Kimberly Barth and high schooler Patrick Schwarzenegger—yes, that Schwarzenegger; the line debuted at mom Maria Shriver’s Women’s Conference. The recycled cotton totes are made in a fair trade compliant factory in China from textile waste, which is broken down—mechanically, not chemically—and then rewoven into thread. In keeping with Project360’s philosophy of using fashion and accessories to generate awareness and motivate action on global issues such as poverty, homelessness, AIDS prevention and cancer research, among others, a portion of proceeds from sales of this adorable tote is donated to Save The Children and the Green Ambassadors Institute.