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Fair-Trade Fashion

6 minute read
Nadia Mustafa

Just a few years ago, most Americans had never heard the phrase “fair trade.” Today corporations as mainstream as McDonald’s and Wal-Mart are using coffee beans harvested by growers in developing countries who are paid a living wage rather than the minimum one. And now the movement is coming into fashion … literally.

A company called Fair Indigo: Style with a Conscience hopes to do for apparel workers what fair-trade coffee has done for farmers. Launched last September with a catalog (made from postconsumer recycled paper, of course) and a website, Fair Indigo is one of the first mainstream fair-trade apparel brands in the U.S., on the heels of several recent European start-ups, most notably Britain’s People Tree and Gossypium.

According to a survey solicited by the company, 86% of consumers care about whether their clothing is made by workers who are paid fairly and treated with respect. But what exactly is fair? There’s no universal measuring stick, but it’s generally accepted that it’s a wage enabling workers to live relatively comfortably in their home region—i.e., enough money for housing, a generous amount of food, health care, education for their children and some disposable income.

This concept seemed like a no-brainer to Fair Indigo CEO Bill Bass, a former Army paratrooper raised in Knoxville, Tenn., who worked for the U.S. Department of Education before entering the business sector. “It’s hard for me to feel right about not paying people fairly,” he says. “But most apparel companies are focused on cutting the cost of production and see the people in their factories as commodities and replaceable parts.” In 2005, Bass and three other executives from Lands’ End, where he had been working as e-commerce chief, decided to leave the company and see if they could change that. “We wanted to start a smaller company that focused not only on the customer but also on the people making the products,” he says. “We knew we could do the clothing, the catalog, the website, the stores. We’d done all these things. The biggest question was if we could find factories that were willing to pay their employees fairly.”

Over the next year, Bass and his partners scoured the globe for factories that met not only their standards for clothing but also their standards for wages. In what Bass, 44, describes as a “long, arduous process,” they interviewed employees, audited payrolls and spoke with owners. “Oh, yeah, it was hard,” he says. “Because nobody does that. There was an initial disbelief we had to overcome in some of these factories.”

Bass and his colleagues eventually chose about 20 sites, most of which are family-owned and -managed and offer above-average wages and generous benefits. With their own capital, they assembled a staff of 30 (25 of whom used to work at Lands’ End), but to this day, the founders still personally visit each factory on a regular basis. They also hand over 5% of the company’s profits to the Fair Indigo Foundation, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to improving educational opportunities in the countries where the company’s factories and co-ops are located.

Last November, Fair Indigo opened its first store, a 1,600-sq.-ft. eco-friendly space in Madison, Wis. The floors and shelves are made of sustainable bamboo, the walls are covered in wood pulp, and the clothes are draped on bamboo hangers. Customers can scan the bar code of any item at an Internet kiosk at the center of the store to read detailed information about the factory in which it was produced. Bass hopes to open four stores a year nationwide starting in 2008.

“Bill understands production and supply-chain issues,” says Patti Freeman Evans, senior analyst for the retail industry at Jupiter-Research. “He is well able to evaluate not only the sales potential but also the financial ramifications of potentially lowering his margins in order to be price competitive.”

Whereas fair-trade coffee is pricier than the conventional stuff, Bass insists that Fair Indigo clothing is just as stylish as other brands and its quality is just as high—only minus the markup for the do-good aspect. This is possible, he says, because he has eliminated the middle man. Bass relies heavily on worker-owned cooperatives, which slashes layers of overhead, and works directly with the owners of non–co-op factories. Moreover, unlike many clothing brands, Fair Indigo has a minimal advertising budget, counting instead on word of mouth, and it sells directly to consumers instead of through a retailer.

The brand’s debut collection consisted of about 100 styles, but Bass says this fall’s line will offer closer to 300, with a wider range of products, a broader color palette and more accessories. Each pair of jeans, he adds enthusiastically, will be made out of organic denim. The Fair Indigo aesthetic, which falls somewhere between J. Jill and J. Crew, is casual but fashionable, aimed at the 30-to-50-year-old set. (Think silk jackets, alpaca scarves and cashmere sweaters.)

It’s not just the clothes that are socially conscious. Its line of Inara spa products is produced by women’s cooperatives in the remote state of Maranhão in northeastern Brazil, and its amethyst-and-garnet geometric drop earrings are made at a Nepalese technical school in a community consisting largely of underprivileged families from the lower castes. The workers at one of the company’s small Costa Rican cooperatives—where each sewer and cutter of the brand’s twill pants and chinos helps make financial decisions—turned an exceptional profit last year and were able to give themselves a bonus of three months’ pay.

There isn’t yet an official fair-trade certification for apparel in the U.S., but Bass is consulting with TransFair USA, an independent third-party certifier of fair-trade goods, in hopes that Fair Indigo will be the impetus for a certification process. “The fair-trade movement is still in its infancy, but people in general are more socially conscious, and I think that’s going to start filtering down into the apparel industry,” says Bass. “Our goal is to start a movement that changes how the apparel industry works. The measure of its success will be how quickly other companies adopt it.”

There’s a long road ahead, says Freeman Evans, but it’s a good lead to follow. “It doesn’t mean that you need consumer demand for fair-trade products. It just means you need good products that are made with fair-trade practices.”

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