The Factory Floor: What is Fair and What is Ethical?

The difference between ethical and fair clothing - and when to trust the ethical fashion claim.

by Tara McCartney, January 3, 2018

The textile consumer is becoming increasingly aware of the importance of supporting and buying ethically branded clothing. Although not yet mainstream, ethical clothing sales are rising year by year, the UK saw a 12% rise in sales in 2013 desite a nearly stagnant economy, while more and more consumers are unwilling to follow fashion at any price. Additionally, media coverage around ethical trading has surged in the last years and continues to be a topic of interest for both general and industry-related media alike.

Although all major brand companies have set up codes of conduct and audit mechanisms to ensure compliance with basic labour standards, the ground floor reality has not comprehensively changed for the better.  In some cases, it even seems to deteriorate as work pressure rises due to growing demand via so-called ‘fast-fashion’ and its impossibly short turnover rate – examples of which abound in countless documentary investigations.

In my opinion and experience, there are several reasons why ethical fashion is still not a trusted claim.

One of these reason lies in the general confusion around what ethical trade actually is. The second reason lies in the nature of the control and assessment procedures put in place by the factories.

Fair trade and ethical trade are not the same

In my work, I often ask people to tell me what they understand under the concept of  ‘fair trade’. In almost all cases, they tell me that it guarantees fair working conditions for the workers in the factories. In fewer cases, they will also mention fairer working conditions for the farm workers. This definition however is far from correct.

While these two alternative approaches to a fair global market share a common ideology, that is to make international trade work better for poor and otherwise disadvantaged workers, significant distinctions can be drawn in terms of practices and approaches.

Fair trade
Fair trade is an organized movement whose goals are to help producers achieve better terms of trade and to promote higher social and environmental standards. Most fair trade efforts are focused on producers of raw commodities (e.g., agricultural products, handicrafts, mined goods) with the aim of raising their standard of living through the guarantee of a minimum selling price while also improving environmental conditions.

However, the payment of a minimum price doesn’t necessarily imply that worker’s labour rights are respected. It may do if the payment of a certain minimum requires that the farmer and accompanying manufacturing supply chain upholds certain labour laws but it is not integral to the program, rather an option.

Ethical trade
Ethical trade refers to the responsibility that retailers, brands and their suppliers take to improve the working conditions of the employees in their supply chains. It means that these organizations adhere to standards of conduct for promoting workers’ rights.

It concentrates on the human aspect of trade, by putting at the middle point workers’ labour rights.

The lack of knowledge of fair trade versus ethical trade is further compounded by a lack of internationally recognised or commonly known bodies who guarantee ethical production conditions. One exception is the Netherlands based Fairwear Organisation but their reach doesn’t (yet) stretch to the general public’s knowledge.

The consequences of this confusion are consumers who buy fair trade assuming it covers the manufacturing process made worse by a lack of go-to regulatory bodies for independent and effective assurances of the human element in the fashion trade.

Lack of control on the factory floor

Despite frequent good intentions, retailers often find themselves under-informed or even misinformed around both how to implement and to maintain ethical measures in the supply chain. Lack of local insight and lack of an onsite team are the main reasons why such good intentions are not brought to fruition.

A first step is to ensure that the factory (and its major suppliers) are national and international labour law compliant. This is done by checking existing certification and having an independent social audit done by a local auditor. A second step would maybe even go beyond local laws and implement more participatory models of employment as part of the producer’s CSR programmes.

Personalising relationships

My call to clothing retailers is one of involvement. Invest on onsite, local staff and be open to partnership. Don’t depend on certificates or audits alone but get to know the workers, their lives and even their dreams. It pays off in all sorts of ways, not only from a human perspective but from a business one. A worker who feels valued will be more loyal.

The old security guard at one of our factories told me with great enthusiasm last month, ‘Maam, we are all taking extra care to make good clothes for you because you care for us’. I had huge sense of validation and fulfilment on the basis of that remark.

The challenge is to not only change the face of an industry, but to make a difference to the lives of the factory workers of India and elsewhere. 

About the Author

Tara McCartney is the founder of both the NGO, United for Hope, an organisation that works towards creating sustainable, replicable model villages in rural India and the social enterprise, Fairfactia, a full-service agency for ethical textile trade in India.

Originally published November 9, 2015