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Can fair trade clothing prevent the next factory tragedy?

Bangladeshi garment workers protest demanding a minimum monthly salary of ~$103 and compensation for the victims and injured of the Rana Plaza building that collapsed. --AP Photo/A.M. Ahad

The collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh killed 1,100 a year ago today. The tragedy has served as a rallying cry for better labor conditions in Bangladesh and the rest of the world.

“I was really shocked by it initially,” said Devin Chesney, an employee with World Food Programme USA. “It was widely covered by media, but then disappeared quickly.”

In the aftermath, Chesney said he thought that the fault for the accident was on the companies that use the factories and the government of Bangladesh. A friend challenged his ideas, forcing him to explain why his purchase decisions were not connected to the accident. The Socratic mode of inquiry worked. Chesney soon realized that he was wrong and has a role to play as a consumer.

“There is a chain of causation that goes all the way back to the people that make it. I play a part in that at least,” he said.

That led him to take action. Chesney developed an idea to start a certification for fair trade clothing. Much like the branding that is adorned on coffee and other foods, he wants people to be able to walk into a nearby Walmart and see which clothes were made by companies who provide safe working conditions and a fare wage.

The idea to certify clothing fair trade is not new. The Fair Trade Foundation did a pilot program to determine whether it was feasible to certify clothing. The two-year effort generated little money, proving that such an endeavor would be challenging. Chesney says he took the lessons from the pilot study in setting up FairWear.

He has worked with the DC incubator 1776 to develop the business model. To mark the anniversary, FairWear teamed up with the Bangladesh-based humanitarian organization BRAC.  They are selling t-shirts made in Bangladesh. The sales will lead to a $1 donation to BRAC for each shirt sold, but also enable better wages for the workers. FairWear expects to pay as much as 35% more than what workers make for such work in Bangladesh.

“This is what you have to do to be a responsible business. Treat these people like human beings, give them a wage to live on and provide safe working conditions,” said Chesney.

“I don’t think it is charitable to treat people like human beings.”

Individual companies have emerged over the past few years that are taking the issue of labor more seriously. These small brands are producing yoga wear, shoes, apparel and more.

“In 2007, for a company to even mention that a product came from somewhere else was barely possible. Now it is everywhere,” said Kelsey Timmerman, author of Where am I Wearing: A Global Tour to the Countries, Factories, and People That Make Our Clothes.

Timmerman traveled around the world in 2007 to track the supply chain for the clothing he was wearing. He visited Honduras, Bangladesh, Cambodia and China. In each place, Timmerman met the people who helped to make his clothing. He is a part of another effort to raise attention for fair labor conditions around the world.

Fashion Revolution Day aims to reach the levels of high fashion. Supporters are encouraged to wear their clothes inside out today in order to draw attention to the tag, the place where the origin of the garment is located. The hope is to start more discussions about the production of clothing.

“The way the people who make and sell our clothes are treated can and will change, if we as consumers are curious, do a little research, and act. It starts with a simple question,” said  Oceana Lott, executive director for Fashion Revolution Day USA.

Efforts in response to the Bangladesh building collapse have tended to focus on the manufacturers and consumers. Timmerman says that the workers should not be forgotten. More must be done to ensure that the rights of workers are preserved, which may mean allowing for them to unionize.

“The term union is not in fashion anymore. To me, true change in the industry in Bangladesh will come when the workers have a voice,” he said. “I don’t see a ton of talk about it.

Some brands are already doing this. Alta Gracia, based in the Dominican Republic, sells apparel at more than 800 college campuses around the US. The company ensures that laborers are getting fair wages and better working conditions. Timmerman hopes to visit the factory himself and work alongside the factory workers as an update to his book.

Unlike other instances where he was given permission by the factory of company, Alta Gracia said it had to check with the employees before granting him access. He says that is an example of employees having voice.

Other examples include Ethopia’s Oliberté, the world’s first fair trade certified footwear company. A predominantly Ethiopian workforce run and operate the manufacturing and sales of the company products. Then there is prAna, the yoga apparel company.  It has undergone a rigorous effort to determine where and how all of its products are made. That way they can meet their mission of sustainability to the environment and the people making the clothing.

Even if it costs a bit more, people are willing to pay. A study on fair trade coffee found that people prefer to buy fair trade certified coffee. They will even pay a bit more when it comes to higher quality coffee. Fair trade coffee currently has a 10% market share of all coffee sold in the world.

Chesney hopes that FairWear can have a similar market share in the span of 10 years. While small, it is a significant chunk of the $284 billion spent on apparel in the US each year. Now he has to prove that his idea works, so that more clothing companies will be willing to join the building movement to improve global wages and conditions.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]