by Hannah Parris, eco-entrepreneur and founder of Fairtrade cotton brand Mighty Good
I am often intrigued by people who claim that big changes in our society ‘can’t be done’.
Can’t be done? Really? Why not? After all, did someone forget to tell the suffragettes that voting rights for women ‘can’t be done’? Did Martin Luther King give up just because someone told him that civil rights “is just impossible”? Of course not.
What the Suffragettes and Civil Rights activists – and many other movements in social change – had in common was a not only the vision of radical change in our communities, but the will and capacity to go out and demonstrate what that change may look like.
Today, it is the fashion world’s turn for radical change. We all know the horror stories of this industry – poverty prices and wages, exploitation, pollution levels outranking most other industries, waste – but so far it seems that progress on many of these issues is designed to be patch-up jobs on specific problems leaving the unfair, unjust and ecologically damaging nature of the industry intact.
Despite the pressure placed on them by groups such as Fashion Revolution – a grass roots campaign of consumers demanding better – the response by big high street brands seems remarkably resistant to systemic change. It is telling that H&M chose to unilaterally mark the third anniversary of the Rana Plaza disaster – the most deadly in the industry – by declaring it “World Recycling Week” while ignoring the human rights responsibilities in their supply chain.
What these High Street brands ignore is that, like Rosa Parks simply taking a seat at the front of the bus, there is growing cohort of brands and people who are going out and proving that ethical and sustainable fashion can be done both profitably and at a commercial scale.
Paving the way
Since its release in 2004, Fairtrade cotton has been at the forefront of this ‘revolution by doing’ movement. Using the standard Fairtrade tool kit of minimum prices, Fairtrade Premiums, grass roots democracy and community-led development, Fairtrade cotton has been conducting a quiet revolution in the cotton growing communities of the global south.
In a recent briefing the impacts of Fairtrade cotton, Fairtrade UK found that:
● The Fairtrade Minimum Price was significantly higher than market rates for African cotton and ensured timely and regular payments to Indian cotton farmers.
● Fairtrade technical assistance helped improve crop quality enabling farmers to sell at a higher price.
● The Fairtrade Premium had been used to support community projects including water wells, primary health care services, food and water security and children’s education.
● Many Fairtrade cotton projects focus on mitigating the impact of climate change and helping farmers to adapt – as well as leading to significant reductions in pesticide use, introduction of sustainable farming methods (organic) leading to better health outcomes for farmers and their communities.
And all this can be achieved for only around a 1-2% market-up on the final price for consumers, provided we can operate at scale. There are now 22 Fairtrade certified cotton producer organisations representing almost 54,700 farmers across seven countries – and some, such as Chetna Organics – are embedded within well-established supply chain partnerships with cotton processors and garment manufacturers.
copyrights Mighty Good Undies
In the shadow of the mainstream
These established, and well operating supply chains have allowed smaller brands, such as my own Audrey Blue and Mighty Good Undies, and a growing number of others, to bring Fairtrade cotton to the public. And the public reaction to us, when they actually get exposed to what we do – for example by us being awarded the top ranking in the recent Behind the Barcode Report – is very encouraging.
Fairtrade cotton is a good news story about what an alternative fashion industry could look like if it put social justice and sustainability at its heart. And we know it works, it is one welcomed by consumers and provided we can get to scale, we can drive down prices to more competitive levels.
But here’s the catch: Fairtrade cotton makes up less than 0.1% of cotton sales (2013 figures)
The truth is, not enough people are buying Fairtrade cotton, because brands think there is no demand for it. And not many consumers are buying Fairtrade cotton because it is difficult to find and the current small scale of production makes it expensive. And together we need this to change.
Anyone can be a fashion revolutionary
I started my underwear brand Mighty Good Undies to develop a small Fairtrade and organic cotton that can be easily upscaled so that everyone has access to affordable eco-fashion. And so that Fairtrade and organic cotton becomes a new normal – you know, like tea or coffee or bananas. As has happened in other Fairtrade commodities, we need a breakthrough product, and this is what we are trying to do.
But Fairtrade cotton brands need advocates out there. We need you. If you want Fairtrade cotton then we need you to buy it, and go out and ask for it.
For example, have you ever walked into your local coffee shop and asked “Do you use Fairtrade coffee?” Well, why not do this for your favourite clothing brands? Or better yet, support the growing number of brands that are dedicated to using Fairtrade cotton.
By re-designing the power relations in the trading system, the Fairtrade model, where it has flourished, has transformed global commodity supply chains in ways no less revolutionary that women, or people of colour, gaining the vote.
If you’re reading this blog, you’ve probably already made the Fairtrade switch in your food cupboard -- now is the time to start bringing the Fairtrade revolution to your wardrobe.
Mighty Good Undies and Audrey Blue were awarded the highest A+ Rating in the Behind the Barcode Report by the Australian NGO Baptist World Aid.
To find out more about Mighty Good, visit: www.mightygoodundies.com.au and their crowdsourcing campaign page: www.startsomegood.com/mightygood.