How Fair Trade is empowering women in the fashion industry

Deux agricultrices de la coopérative Chetna Organic, en Inde, dans un champ de coton biologique et équitable.

The history of the fashion industry relies on centuries of human and environmental exploitation. From the cultivation of cotton, historically marked by slave labour, to the garment factories, real sweatshops, women and girls carry endless hours working at a furious pace and in often unsafe conditions, all for very low wages, most of the time below the subsistence minimum.

The collapse of Rana Paza, a huge textile factory located in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, which occurred on April 23rd, 2013, took with it the lives of more than 1,100 workers exploited by the “fast fashion” industry. This event was a stark reminder to Western societies of their responsibility in this appalling reality, raising awareness of consumers and decision makers and giving rise to the Fashion Revolution movement for more transparency and ethics in the fashion industry.

On the occasion of International Women’s Rights Day, I would like to highlight the contribution of fair trade and the progress it can accomplish in defending the rights of women workers and farmers.

The Fairtrade standards to combat discrimination

Fairtrade International standards promote the empowerment of women in developing countries. They cover a range of areas, from working conditions and environmental protection, to the democratic management of cooperatives and the freedom of association for workers.

These standards contain specific provisions to combat discrimination and reduce inequalities between women and men. Fairtrade certified organizations must also abide by rules against sexual harassment, bullying and abuse. In addition, by requiring democratic and egalitarian decision-making processes, the Fairtrade certification system allows women to have a say in the governance of their communities and the management of their workplaces.

Developing women’s leadership through training

For each Fairtrade certified product you buy, a small percentage is given to member organizations of the Fairtrade system who support producers through advice and training services.

Among the training offered, specific programs for women allow them to acquire business skills and develop their leadership. Practical training in skills such as finance, negotiation and decision-making then enables women to occupy management positions and participate actively in decision-making in their communities.

Training courses are also aimed to men, helping them to fight against discriminatory behavior and promote the value of gender equality in their communities.

Two women making Etiko fair trade shoes in the workshop of Talon Sports in Silakot, Pakistan.

Better working and pay conditions for women

Fair trade offers certified cotton producers and textile industry workers better conditions and better income.

By relying on the standards of the International Labor Organization, the Fairtrade certification ensures the respect for certain basic rights, such as the right to maternity leave, to decent working hours, compliance with health and safety standards, reducing accidents at work and occupational diseases that affect women more severely, and decent wages for women.

The Fairtrade standards guarantee a minimum price established in advance and above market price, which covers sustainable production costs and a fair remuneration for cotton producers. They also ensure the payment of a minimum wage to workers, which cannot be lower than the country’s legal minimum.

The new Fairtrade Textiles standard goes even further by building on the concept of living wage, a salary which must cover the basic needs of individuals and which generally goes beyond the legal minimum. By the way, the Purecotz factory, which manufactures MELAWEAR products in India, is the first in the world to be certified under the new Fairtrade Textile standard.

In addition, these standards help to combat the exploitation of women and girls. By ensuring compliance with the minimum legal working age, Fairtrade certified organizations actively fight against child labour. Girls are thus no longer forced to work and can go to school to prepare for their future and that of their community.

Greater autonomy for women thanks to the social development of communities

Thanks to better incomes, and the Fairtrade premium paid in addition to the guaranteed minimum price, producer organizations invest in community programs that promote the social development of their communities. These social programs particularly benefit women and girls, who are often the first to have to make up for the lack of collective services.

Access to clean water, while the task of fetching water for the family is often the responsibility of young girls; access to health care, which is often not covered by the community in the absence of a strong welfare state; access to education, from which young girls are still too often excluded in developing countries: social investment in communities creates favorable conditions for the emancipation of women and girls.

In addition, micro-credit makes it possible to invest in initiatives led by women. It offers them the opportunity to obtain an independent source of income. This is made possible by the payment in advance of a portion of the harvest by the buyers, but also by the investment of the Fairtrade premium paid to the community. Thus we see the development of new micro-enterprises that enable women’s empowerment, the diversification of local economies and the offering of new services to the community. Subsistence farming, a solidarity grocery store or even a seamstress cooperative are all examples of women’s initiatives funded through fair trade.

You can make a difference

While fast fashion brands are selling t-shirts with feminist slogans made by exploited women and girls in developing countries, you have the power to make a difference! By choosing to vote with your wallet, you will make a real positive difference in the lives of thousands of women who depend on the fashion industry for a living.

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