by Courtney Han & Meghan Reilly
Westfield’s town center is filled with a number of popular stores, making it a desirable place to shop for residents and members of the surrounding areas to shop. But when shoppers enter well-known chain stores, are they aware of the companies’ practices regarding fair trade?
According to the Columbia Human Rights Law Review, “fair trade is a social and economic movement that seeks, through private enforcement, to ensure that transnational supply chains do not exploit human and social rights. It seeks to do so by promoting poverty reduction, producer empowerment, and consumer awareness.”
The article states that private fair trade organizations inspect the “supply chains” of products and put fair trade-certified labels on said products if they meet their standards.
This process guarantees to consumers that “strict economic, social, and environmental criteria were met in the production and trade of the labeled product.” Fair trade stresses the importance of supply chain, meaning that a company’s source, a business from which it gets its materials from, could be using child labor or violating other fair trade principles.
Fair trade is a more complex issue than it seems. For example, some corporations have been surprised to discover that their sources were violating fair trade principles or using child labor.
One way clothing companies violate fair trade is by manufacturing their products in sweatshops, which are factories that violate two or more labor laws, like those pertaining to wages, working hours and child labor, according to greenamerica.org.
Sweatshop production is used because it cuts costs for the factories. Workers are not given a fair level of pay, and funds are not expended to keep working conditions safe and clean. Factory owners maximize profit while offering the consumer the lowest price possible.
In 2007, the British newspaper The Observer investigated a factory in New Delhi that produced clothes for Gap, which also owns Banana Republic. The investigation revealed that the factory was using child labor. In one case, a child laborer worked 16 hours a day embroidering clothes without pay. According to guardian.co.uk, the working conditions were “filthy, the corridors flowing with excrement from a flooded toilet.”
In a statement made by a Gap spokesman after the sweatshop was discovered, the company admitted that child labor “appeared to have been caught up in the production process,” and the accused factories would no longer be affiliated with Gap.
Said the spokesman, “After learning of this situation, [Gap Incorporated] immediately took steps to stop this work order and to prevent the product from ever being sold in our stores. We are also convening a meeting of our suppliers where we will reinforce our prohibition on child labor.”
Sweatshops were also found in the United States. According to huffingtonpost.com, the U.S. Department of Labor discovered sweatshops in California producing clothes for various companies, including Urban Outfitters and Forever 21 in 2012. Despite California’s minimum wage of $8 per hour and the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, workers were being paid less than $6.50 per hour, according to huffingtonpost.com. The factories owed $11 million in back wages to about 11,000 employees.
In addition, the cotton used to produce clothing from Victoria’s Secret was reportedly picked by child slaves in third-world countries, according to huffingtonpost.com. The children work in the cotton fields all day and had no opportunity to get an education.
Fair Trade and Westfield
Despite their trade violations, the clothing corporations’ popularity makes it challenging to end sweatshop labor and workplace discrimination.
According to senior Tara Sciortino, fair trade shopping can be difficult. “It's much easier to just run to Stop and Shop than to research where to find some fair trade bread,” said Sciortino. “If fair trade items were easier to access, I would be all over that.”
The dilemma in fair trade manufacturing is that the production costs will go up, making the sale price of that product much higher.
According to nytimes.com, American Apparel is a fair trade business. In addition, Eileen Fisher, a women’s clothing store in Westfield, has a fair trade clothing line.
Said an anonymous senior: “Knowing if an item is fair trade or not presents a moral dilemma, but...it does not affect my decision to buy something. If I knew that not buying something might potentially lead to the rights of workers overseas, I would wholeheartedly refrain from buying it. But in all honest, is one shirt going to make a difference?”