Fair Trade Fashion

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Fair Trade Fashion main image

Image courtesy of Solidarity Center, via Creative Commons license, some rights reserved.

Key Points

  • The modern fair trade movement began in 1946.
  • Networking and labeling initiatives in the 1980s & 1990s greatly accelerated the growth and recognition of fair trade.
  • There is now a greater emphasis on fair trade in the fashion industry since the horrific Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh.
  • Fair trade fashion is a growing trend.


Sadly, human rights abuses continue to exist. With globalization, many workers in developing countries find themselves in very vulnerable situations. Far too often, those of us living in the privileged West must face the fact that many of our favorite consumer products are produced in less than humane circumstances. Quite frankly, for many people, it’s a source of great shame and frustration.

To negate this wrong, the fair trade movement has become much more prominent as producers, led by consumer demand, continue to become more ethically aware. While many improvements have taken place in the production of agricultural products such as tea, coffee, bananas, and cocoa, improvements are also happening in other sectors such as mining and manufacturing.

In this article, we will celebrate the evolution of the fair trade movement. From there, we will examine more closely the horrific consequences of poor working conditions in the textiles industry along with the growing demand for fair trade products in the fashion industry. Finally, we will acknowledge the contribution of ethically driven brands and designers who are disrupting the industry in all the right ways. Let’s get to it…

History of Fair Trade

It is difficult to pinpoint an exact starting date for the history of fair trade. Many commentators suggest that the fair trade movement first evolved in the years following World War II. While this is certainly a reasonable assessment, it is also possible to trace the concept of fair trade as far back as the 1820s.

Perhaps the first example of fair trade from that era was that of the Free Produce Society, formed in Philadelphia in 1827. As an anti-slavery movement, the Free Produce Society sought to promote the values of “free labor and non-slave-derived goods”.1 Thus, by instilling in consumers both at home and abroad a sense of moral control over the plight of enslaved people, the Free Produce Society sought to “…eliminate the market for slave-produced goods. It was a form of moral and economic boycott”.2 In 1817, Allen and Forten were quoted as articulating this concept succinctly by saying:

“Every individual who uses the produce of slave labor encourages the slaveholder, becom[ing] also a participator in his wickedness”.1, 3

Emboldened by the Free Produce Society, several other abolitionist organizations were also formed throughout the 1830s. Later, European initiatives were formed to counteract the imbalance of international trade. However, in both Europe and the United States, these groups achieved only limited success as they struggled to compete in the “free” market economy.1

These organizations are excellent examples of early fair trade initiatives. However, as mentioned earlier, the concept of fair trade as we know it today is generally considered to have begun after the Second World War. In 1946, the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) established a women’s sewing group on the island of Puerto Rico. This was followed three years later by the creation of another not-for-profit organization called Sales Exchange for Refugee Rehabilitation and Vocations (SERRV). Both MCC and SERRV were primarily involved with the production and sale of handcrafted goods from Puerto Rico and South America destined for the North American market.4

Later, in the 1950s, a European organization that became known as OXFAM began selling handcrafted items from Chinese refugees to the U.K. market.5 Meanwhile, in mainland Europe, similar initiatives were taking place. For example, in the Netherlands, a Roman Catholic charity called S.O.S. Wereldhandel was established to promote the sale of products from countries in Southern Africa.6 This organization was rebranded in 1967 as Fair Trade Original and is credited with selling handicrafts and artifacts from impoverished communities in Haiti to affluent countries in Europe.4

A year later, in 1968, developing countries began to organize themselves at the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) in New Delhi, India. Using the slogan, “Trade-not-aid” their goal was to advocate for the adoption of fair trade practices between developed and developing nations. While their agenda was never fully implemented, the concept of, “Trade-not-aid” is credited with further promoting the ideals of conscientious citizens all over the world.4

As the fair trade movement gathered momentum throughout the 1970s, many more agricultural producers gained access to fair market prices. Products such as coffee, nuts, and sugar were first imported to World Shops, also known as Fair Trade Shops, in the Netherlands from cooperatives in Guatemala. This success was also replicated in other parts of the world.4 By then, the fair trade concept had established itself as a viable movement, ready to compete and grow.

Greater Collaboration: Networking

While many fair trade groups achieved admirable levels of success by themselves, as independent organizations they were limited in what they could accomplish. Accordingly, the 1980s ushered in a new era of collaboration between fair trade organizations. The first notable collaboration of such autonomous groups occurred in 1987 with the formation of the European Fair Trade Association (EFTA). Two years later, in 1989, the World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO) was formed.7

The membership of these associations comprised of disparate organizations within the fair trade movement. To further enhance their effectiveness, regional associations were also established in Africa, Asia, and South America, with national associations emerging in developing economies like Kenya and Bangladesh.6

By 1998, the predominant fair trade organizations arranged to meet and create an umbrella organization referred to by the acronym FINE. This organization is comprised of:6, 8

  • Fairtrade International (FLO)
  • World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO)
  • Network of European World Shops (NEWS!)
  • European Fair Trade Association (EFTA)

The overall goal of this informal organization is to further promote and advocate for the fair trade movement, often in political circles, in areas such as:7

  • The harmonization of fair trade standards and guidelines
  • Improvements in fair trade monitoring systems
  • Guidance in terms of advocacy and communications of fair trade principles

Greater Collaboration: Labeling

In conjunction with an increase in networking activities, the late 1980s and 1990s also saw an introduction of fair trade labeling initiatives. The first occurrence of such labeling was in 1988 with the introduction of the Max Havelaar label. Later, in 1997, a worldwide association of fair trade labels was established. The new association was called Fairtrade Labeling International (FLO) and has since been renamed as Fairtrade International.6

By all accounts, the introduction of labeling along with a greater emphasis on networking was instrumental in the growing success of the fair trade movement. These initiatives enabled an increase in market penetration through mainstream shopping outlets6 and have contributed greatly to the current stature of the fair trade concept in the wider economy.

Fair Trade: Overall Industry Statistics

The fair trade movement has come a long way since its current inception in 1946. Today, the term “fair trade” is commonplace in the modern business vernacular. Using data compiled by Fairtrade International, we can measure the overall market size and growth rate of fair trade products globally.

The data is certainly impressive. In 2004, worldwide sales of Fairtrade International products was €0.83 billion. By 2017, that figure was approximately €8.49 billion.9 That equates to a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 19.59 percent. That figure was calculated using the formula:

CAGR = (final value / initial value)1/number of time periods – 1 

    = (€8.49 billion / €0.83 billion)1/13 – 1

    = €10.230.0769 – 1

CAGR = 19.59%

A graphical representation of this sales growth is represented below:9

Revenue of Fair Trade International Products Worldwide from 2004 to 2017

Image data courtesy of Statista9

While the overall growth trend for fair trade products is on an upwards trajectory, specific data related to fair trade fashion is not so readily available. For example, the figures listed above relate to the sale of a wide variety of products – everything from coffee beans to avocados.

Therefore, when assessing the significance of fair trade production in the fashion industry, a reasonable starting point would be to conduct an audit of the sales volume figures of fair trade cotton. As a natural fiber grown by farmers, cotton is always in high demand. However, since time immemorial, those working in the cotton industry have been subjected to an abundance of unfair treatment and abuse. Fortunately, with the growth of fair trade, such workers are now able to live and work with dignity. According to Fairtrade International, the sales volume of fair trade cotton in 2017 was 10,799 metric tonnes. That figure equates to a year-on-year growth rate of 33 percent.10

While these figures are encouraging, the ongoing level of human rights violations in the textiles industry remains disturbing. An abhorrent example of this occurred in 2013 when 1,138 people lost their lives in the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Horrifically, factory workers that had been evacuated from the building after cracks appeared in the walls were ordered back inside by their employers. A short time later, disaster struck.11

Rana Plaza Building Collapse BangladeshImage courtesy of Rijans, via Creative Commons license, some rights reserved.12

For many people, the Rana Plaza factory collapse signaled a turning point in the industry. Since then, leading fashion brands have been scrutinized much more vigorously as consumers cry out for ethically sourced clothing and accessories. Quite simply, we have now entered a fashion revolution… literally.

Founded in the aftermath of the Rana Plaza disaster, Fashion Revolution13 is a foundation that is committed to changing the way the fashion industry works. By tackling the problems at every stage – sourcing, production, and consumption of clothing, the great people at Fashion Revolution are helping to ensure that more of our clothes are made, “…in a safe, clean and fair way”.14 Recent catwalk trends indicate that their efforts have not been in vain.

Fair Trade: Fashion Industry Statistics

As organizations like Fashion Revolution and Fairtrade International campaign for workers’ rights, we continue to see an ever-increasing trend towards ethical fair trade fashion. Meanwhile, the worldwide fashion industry continues to report positive growth rates. According to Euromonitor International, the global market size for apparel and footwear was US$1.7 trillion in 2017 with a projected growth rate of two percent by 2022.15

Likewise, the management consultancy firm McKinsey & Company reported the global market size of the overall fashion industry as US$2.4 trillion having grown at 5.5 percent annually in the previous decade.16

While the figures vary quite a bit depending on the criteria used, whatever way you look at it, fashion is a gargantuan industry. In fact, if measured against nation-states Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the fashion industry would be the seventh-largest economy in the world.14 While the industry can be segmented into many different sectors, such as luxury, casual, athletic, and a plethora of others, surely, the most exciting development is the trend towards fair trade and sustainable clothing.

In 2015, referring back to the Rana Plaza factory collapse, major publications like the Wall Street Journal reported on the growing trend towards, “Fair Trade fashion and décor”.17 Not just a passing fad, the growth in fair trade as a major fashion movement continues to gather momentum. For example, search engine results show a 47 percent increase in consumers searching for fashion items that can be categorized as ethical.18, 19

Responding to this demand, major brands like Inditex (the parent company of Zara), Calvin Klein, and Tommy Hilfiger are now pursuing fair, ethical agendas. Complementing these developments is the emergence of movements like Fair Trade Fashion Show. Launched in 2015, this event is a wonderful example of good people tackling the significant problems that exist in the fashion industry.20 Thankfully, mainstream fashion events like London Fashion Week and New York Fashion Week are also showing greater awareness of ethical fashion issues.


The fair trade movement continues to evolve since its current inception in 1946. According to one source, fair trade has a 59 percent level of awareness amongst consumers.21 While this is encouraging, we cannot become complacent as the stakes are far too high. We must remain vigilant. Furthermore, the textiles industry is the second largest employer of people in developing countries (second after agriculture). Therefore, when done fairly, the fair trade fashion industry can be a powerful agent for change.

Here at Voguelle, we’re proud and excited about our growing Fair Trade Collection. We’re glad you’re here to join us for the ride.


[1] https://www.flickr.com/photos/62762640@N02/16237298782

[2] Newman, R.S., 2008. Freedom's prophet: Bishop Richard Allen, the AME Church, and the black founding fathers. NYU Press. Available online at: https://books.google.ie/books?id=BxN8GXEKspQC&pg=PA266&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false

[3] Allen and Forten quoted by New Jersey minister and colonizationist Robert Finley in 1817, quoted in William Loren Katz’s preface to William Lloyd Garrison’s Thoughts on African Colonization (New York, 1970), viii.

[4] International Fair Trade Association. (2005). Crafts and Food. Accessed August 2, 2006.

[5] https://www.britannica.com/topic/fair-trade

[6] http://africanactivist.msu.edu/image.php?objectid=32-131-156

[7] https://wfto.com/about-us/history-wfto/history-fair-trade

[8] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FINE

[9] https://www.statista.com/statistics/271354/revenue-of-fair-trade-products-worldwide-since-2004/

[10] http://fairtradeamerica.org/~/media/Fairtrade%20America/Files/Reports/2017-Fairtrade-International-Annual-Report.pdf

[11] https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/bangladesh/10014778/Bangladesh-building-collapse-kills-at-least-82-in-Dhaka.html

[12] https://www.flickr.com/photos/40831205@N02/8731789941

[13] https://www.fashionrevolution.org/

[14] https://www.fashionrevolution.org/about/

[15] https://blog.euromonitor.com/global-apparel-footwear-valued-us-1-7-trillion-2017-millions-of-used-clothing-disposed-every-year/

[16] https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/retail/our-insights/the-state-of-fashion

[17] https://www.wsj.com/articles/fair-trade-becomes-a-fashion-trend-1436307440

[18] https://www.forbes.com/sites/oliviapinnock/2018/11/20/sustainable-fashion-searches-surged-in-2018/#f80004f5fe70

[19] https://www.lyst.com/year-in-fashion-2018/

[20] https://www.fairtradefashionshow.com/impact/

[21] https://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2016/03/30/fair-trade-fashion_n_9530858.html