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Can fair trade bounce back?

Fair trade cotton slipped down the retail agenda last year, but this month’s Fairtrade Fortnight will make a fresh push for ethical sourcing, with a host of retailers on board.

Fair-trade cotton was undoubtedly not top of retailers’ priorities in the recessionary 2009, but the Fairtrade Foundation is attempting to put ethical sourcing back on the fashion agenda, five years on from fair trade cotton’s inception.

Fairtrade Foundation is to kick off a year of fashion promotions during Fairtrade Fortnight, which starts on February 22, in a bid to reverse sliding sales of ethically sourced cotton.

With the future of ethical fashion etailer Adili in the balance, as it struggles to secure funding (its shares were suspended last week), and sales of fair trade cotton down more than 25% last year, the market needs a boost.

“We want to make fair trade even more fashionable,” says Vanessa Brain, business development manager for cotton at Fairtrade Foundation. “It’s about shifting the profile towards the younger fashion consumer and more fashionable product and making the tone appealing to a broader audience.”

As part of its bid to engage young people, fair trade cotton farmers will be touring fashion colleges with former model and Hollyoaks star James Redmond. The roadshow is intended to inspire young designers to engage with ethical sourcing.

Young designers are also being targeted through the Ethical Fashion Forum’s Innovation competition, which this year will have a fair trade theme.

During Fairtrade Fortnight, launches from young fashion businesses will be at the fore. Warehouse, Asos, Dorothy Perkins and streetwear brand Spunky will all unveil collections, while Monsoon will be introducing fair trade into its younger Fusion range.

Warehouse, the young fashion chain owned by Aurora Fashions, is planning a capsule collection of eight garments using fair trade cotton, including dresses, pegleg trousers, waistcoats and shrugs.

Warehouse brand director Sue Vyse says: “There is a growing awareness among our customers about the origins of the product they are buying. “

Etailer Asos, meanwhile, will be launching its Green Room ethical fashion section. The dedicated area of the site will stock 10 Asos-branded Fairtrade Foundation-certified cotton T-shirts, as well as the new collection for ethical brand People Tree designed in collaboration with Harry Potter star Emma Watson. The etailer’s new Asos Africa range will also feature items made from Fairtrade-certified cotton.

The retailers’ ranges are being publicised with a star-studded photo shoot featuring celebrities and models including Lisa Butcher, Tia Ward, Amber Rowan, Laura Bailey and actresses Genevieve Lake and Laura Haddock. The pictures aim to dispel ethical fashion’s frumpy image. Butcher, presenter of TV show Britain’s Next Top Model, will also

front the cotton campaign during Fairtrade Fortnight, and former Marks & Spencer model Bailey will take part later in the year.

Fair trade rethink

The focus on young fashion comes as the biggest buyers of fair trade cotton reassess their strategy on fair trade after finding that shoppers were not inspired by basic T-shirts.

As the recession has bitten, retailers and shoppers have focused more on price promises than ethical concerns, while retailers have also struggled to find cotton-based products suitable for the chillier seasons.

Two years ago, Marks & Spencer estimated it would use a third of the world’s supply of fair trade cotton to make 20 million garments, Tesco aimed to sell between 15 million and 20 million garments using the fibre and Sainsbury’s aimed to sell 3 million. However, all have struggled to meet those targets.

After the dramatic slump last year, sales of fair trade cotton are expected to remain flat in 2010 as new brands come in and major retailers concentrate on getting their fair trade offer right.

Tesco and M&S are both introducing more design-led pieces, including denim and knitwear. Both will also be producing school uniforms using Fairtrade-certified cotton this year.

Debenhams menswear trading director Adam Creasey said the retailer had managed to maintain sales growth in its FiveG fair trade menswear range - created in partnership with rowing Olympian Sir Steve Redgrave - because it was not just reliant on the feel-good factor of ethically sourced cotton.

He says: “We’ve created a brand around fair trade and made a product which sits together as a collection. The consumer is interested in good value and fair trade can be part of that.”

Vyse says Warehouse has also “veered away” from doing basic T-shirts. “We are about fashion and I don’t think our customer would be interested in commodity T-shirts,” she says.

Maureen Hinton, senior retail analyst at market research firm Verdict, agrees that while shoppers want to be reassured that fashion is sourced fairly, price, style and quality considerations are well ahead of ethical concerns. She says: “People are much more aware than they used to be about sourcing issues and do consider that. It is moving up the scale, but it is not their main priority.”

Meanwhile, Fairtrade Foundation has recognised that its lengthy certification process, under which all suppliers handling garments made with its ethical cotton must meet certain standards, has held back progress.

The organisation has been working to make the certification process for suppliers quicker and more efficient in order to cut costs without affecting the contribution handed to farmers.

The fashion industry remains key to the organisation’s work. Fairtrade Foundation head of non-food business development Victoria Morton says: “The fashion industry is still absolutely fundamental to selling cotton. We want to work with it to think of the best way of doing that.”

How falling fair trade sales have affected cotton farmers

Fair trade cotton farmers are being forced to put community projects, such as building

schools and fresh water systems, on hold as retailers and

shoppers slow their enthusiasm for ethical cotton.

Fair trade offers farmers a set minimum price for cotton calculated to ensure that it covers production and living costs.

An additional premium is also distributed to the producer co-operatives, which use the money to invest in community projects such as establishing schools, clean water facilities

and clinics.

Textile manufacturer Pratibha Syntex’s managing director Shreyaskar Chaudhary, who works with 4,000 organic cotton farmers via the Vasudha project, said the group’s sales of fair trade cotton had dived 30% in 2009 compared with the year before, after a 60% increase between 2007 and 2008.

He said: “It has been a disappointment. We were building a school and a lot of the premium money went into that, and now we don’t have the funds to complete it so we are having to look for alternatives.”

Shailesh Patel, project manager for cotton at Agrocel, a farmer’s association working in Gujarat, western India, said it had only been able to buy 40% to 50% of its fair trade farmers’ production at the end of 2008 because of weak demand. This year, it expects to buy about 70% of a smaller crop.

He said the group’s members had been protected to some extent by an increase in the price of paid for cotton by the Indian government. However, he said that farmers would still lose out

on the community premium associated with fair trade.

Patel said: “This means we cannot do some of the work we had planned on educating and developing farmers.”

Readers' comments (2)

  • I am currently a 4th year Fashion Technology student and believe that using fairtrade fabric is a really important direction for the fashion industry. My 3rd year collection consisted of a mix of fairtrade and organic fabric and would like to use fairtrade again this year but i found both last year and currently it very hard to find suppliers of high quality fabrics by the metre.

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  • I agree with K Ferrol. I find it difficult to source fairtrade cotton materials and yarns. There is not enough being done about advertising or communicating who sells fairtrade materials, therefore how can we buy it?

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