What does ‘certified fairtrade’ mean when it comes to clothes?

It is a long supply chain, but we have it covered.

It is a long supply chain, but we have it covered.

While I have always been what you would call a ‘fairtrade motivated’ consumer, and I was pretty clear on what buying fairtrade certified food products like coffee, chocolate, bananas, sugar meant.  However, the picture was a little less clear when it came to clothing, and actually I hardly even considered it as an issue really.

When I started on the muka kids path I knew that fairtrade certification would be more complicated for clothing than the for the direct commodity products where the route from farmer to consumer is short. However, sorting out in my own mind what certified fairtrade clothing actually meant did require doing quite a bit of digging. I thought it would be useful to share what I found.

Figure 1 (I can’t help myself, it is the researcher in me coming out!) is a simplified but pretty accurate idea of the chain from the food commodity farmer to you (e.g. coffee, banana etc).

Fugure 1. Farmer to consumer chain for simple foods

Figure 1. Farmer to consumer chain for simple foods

If we are talking coffee then what certified fairtrade coffee means is that farmer you see at the start of that chain is guaranteed a price for their raw bean at market which regardless of the international price of coffee on the open market will cover her costs and allow her to make a living. This price is set by Fairtrade International (FLO) annually in a cooperative agreement with farmers, buyers, sellers etc. In addition, the certified fairtrade retailer of coffee will give 2% of their wholesale sales back to FLO for the farmers (often a farming cooperative) to spend on local development.


With clothing (and we are talking cotton clothing here) the chain from cotton farmer to you is much longer, with many more processes, and hence workers involved. Figure 2 is a very simplified explanation of the chain from cotton farmer to you.


Figure 2. Farmer to consumer chain for cotton clothing

Figure 2. Farmer to consumer chain for cotton clothing

In further blogs I will explain in more detail about the cotton clothing production. However, for the purposes of brevity in this blog what it means when a t-shirt says it is a certified fairtrade cotton t-shirt is this:

▪         The cotton farmers receive the internationally agreed fairtrade (FLO) price for their cotton at market

▪         The factories, which undertake all the processing of that raw cotton, including those that actually turn the cotton fabric into clothes (what we know as garment workers), meet one of a number of internationally accredited standards for their workplace and workers. Some examples include SA8000 , World Fair Trade Organisation , and Fairwear Foundation .These standards, like fairtrade certification, are all independently set externally audited standards that the factory is required to meet. (I will discuss the nitty gritty of these standards later also)

▪         The retailers pay 2% of their wholesale price to FLO, which goes back to the cotton farmers (often a farming cooperative) to spend on local development, such as education, schools, organic farming training, other farmer related resources.

So that is it in very simple terms – what seeing the certified fairtrade mark on clothing means to you the buyer. While the system is certainly not perfect, especially when a supply chain is as complicated as cotton clothing is, it does give piece of mind that ‘certified fairtrade’ is the highest, independently certified, ethical standard for production that a clothing firm can currently adhere to.


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