J.Crew + Madewell Introduce Fair Trade Denim Lines: What Does That Mean for their Factory Workers?

Updated: Apr 3, 2019


Photo via Fair Trade USA

There's a lot of buzz around the news that J.Crew and Madewell released Fair Trade certified denim collections, and rightly so. In order to sell Fair Trade denim, they had to get their factory Fair Trade certified, and that's no easy task. There are both upfront and ongoing costs attached to the Fair Trade business model, and for large retailers to take the leap, they have to be truly committed to ethical fashion. This is not a case of groan-inducing "greenwashing" like we've seen from other big players in the fashion industry.


The day the new Fair Trade designs were released, I read several articles showcasing the fabulous designs from both brands (I've tried them all on and they really are fabulous) but I couldn't find much information on the factory level impact of the collections. As someone who has studied and worked as a fair trade advocate for the past decade, I knew there was more to this story, so I reached out to Maya Johnsen, VP of Apparel and Home Goods at Fair Trade USA, and Virginia, the Sustainability Project Manager at Saitex factory in Vietnam for the details. I started by asking Maya to give a brief overview of Fair Trade USA and her work there.

Maya Johnsen

MJ: Fair Trade USA is a non profit organization; we’re based in Oakland CA,

and we’re the leading certifier of Fair Trade goods in North America. We just turned twenty years old last year, and our history is really focused on larger commodities, working on a bigger scale -- coffee tea, chocolate, produce. Of course when you go to a Whole Foods Market now and you go to the produce section...the Fair Trade certified label is ubiquitous. We’re so grateful for the growth that we’ve seen. I’ve been a part of the organization since 2004, at the time I joined we worked with four products, and I was brought on to run our tea program. Fast forward 15 years later, we are working over 30 product categories, we’ve reached about 2 million farmers, fisherman and factory employees through our program, in 72 countries.


MFG: When shoppers see your Fair Trade mark, what does it signal to them? What does it mean for factories that are certified?

MJ: When you purchase a Fair Trade certified product it supports three things -- safer working conditions, better livelihoods and protection for the environment. Improved livelihoods is what really separates Fair Trade, this idea of giving back a percentage of the purchase price directly back to the people who made the product. Over those 20 years, $500 million extra dollars have gone back to the people in our supply chains. It’s so simple. It’s companies committing to pay that, and then customers and consumers, every single one of us, looking for that label and voting with our dollars for a better world.


[On the factory level] when you have to go through a 300 point audit, and you have to change some of the times the way you work and the way you pay people, and the amount of vacation you give people, it’s a huge lift for these factories, and they should be rewarded. I know that the companies that are doing Fair Trade, we have about 50 right now that are certified in 13 countries, and we have about 50 that are in various stages of achieving certification. These are factories that are some of the best in the world, and they’re able to comply with a pretty intensive system.


MFG: I know the money goes to Fair Trade committees who choose how it's spent. What percentage goes back?


MJ: It’s 1 percent, of all purchased products, goes back to the Fair Trade committee. In 2018 our estimate is that 4M dollars in premium will go back to those 50 factories, which is a lot of money. Some factories get more than others because it’s solely based on how much volume they sell. If you’re a factory that’s selling a ton of Fair Trade volume, they may have $250k dollars and another factory may have $25k. Just for numbers sake, if you think about that, $4M divided by 50 factories, that’s approximately an average of $80k per factory.


MFG: That’s huge, especially in other countries.


MJ: Yeah it’s a lot, it’s really exciting it’s a lot of money. The most powerful thing to me about Fair Trade and the use of the Fair Trade money, is that it’s self determined. It’s not FTUSA, its not J.Crew, its not the factory owner saying this is how you need to spend the money. It’s a process by which, by consensus, they vote, and it is driven with their voice.

Image via Fair Trade USA

MFG: I know the Saitex factory in Vietnam is the one J.Crew certified. Have the factory employees decided how to invest their premium yet? Also, remind me how the Fair Trade committees are formed.


MJ: They’re democratically elected by their peers. [Saitex] hasn't decided yet, they’re just starting their needs assessment process. We do a very in depth process where our team on the ground in Vietnam will walk them through an analysis in various areas of their life and their communities, where they think they could have the most benefit by use of the dollars. Is it education, is it healthcare, is it women's programs, is it nutrition, is it micro-business? We’ll see, and I’m sure that the J.Crew Group is going to be really excited to talk about the project and continue the story.


MFG: Can you give me a past example of how a Fair Trade committee has opted to spend their extra money?


MJ: In Sri Lanka, factory employees voted to build a school next to the factory, and that was so transformative, Patagonia made a film about it. Typically, mothers and fathers have to travel to the factory from their home. They leave very early in the morning and they get home after dark, and most of the time they have to leave their kidos behind with family. In some cases there’s stories of mothers who really wanted to further their careers and wanted to learn and continue to work, but they didn’t have childcare so they couldn’t work. So they voted to build a Montessori school on site! The little ones can go on the bus with their moms and dads to the factory. They drop them off at school, visit them at lunch, and then pick them up and take them home. When you’re a parent, and you’re a working parent, your dream is to spend as much time with your child as possible, and the fact that this building of the school that they voted to do meant that mothers and fathers and children spent much more time every day together, was so powerful for that community. That’s a favorite of mine.


MFG: Besides the Fair Trade premium, what else changes at the factory post-certification?


MJ: They way that the certification works, is that a 3rd party auditor that we’ve trained goes for a semi-announced audit, so the factories don’t know exactly when the auditor will be coming, one time annually. But throughout the year, my team on the ground (we have an amazing person in Vietnam) works directly with the factories and the Fair Trade committees. They visit, they have ongoing emails and phone calls, and they’re there as a presence to support the fair trade activities throughout the year, and that’s really important, because an audit is just a stamp in time, but factory worker engagement, ongoing support, communication, and having a presence, is what helps us feel even more confident about legitimate Fair Trade behaviors, and making an impact. That’s really unique about this program. We’ve really set up something that’s above and beyond, even a typical Fair Trade model.


MFG: One thing that's exciting to me about this story, is that other brands that already manufacture at Saitex will now have the option to pay the Fair Trade premium and sell Fair Trade products. [Everlane, G Star Raw, and Target to name a few]. Are you in talks with other brands there?


MJ: Absolutely, I can’t say the names of the companies now, but you will see over the upcoming year, other companies that currently buy at Saitex will be converting their products to Fair Trade certified too and they’ll be paying the premium.

This conversation with Maya really excited me. When companies of J. Crew Group's size sell Fair Trade products, it creates a ripple effect. Not only does their investment in certification allow other brands to take part in the factory program, but the attention they are getting for their commitment to ethical fashion will motivate their competitors to join them in doing good. All of this results in more money raised for worker empowerment, which in turn positively impacts families and their communities.


That brings me to the Saitex factory in Vietnam -- a manufacturer that prior to being certified, already had an excellent reputation when it comes to sustainability. I wanted to connect with them and hear about the impact of certification directly from their employees, because far too often factory workers' voices are overlooked. I connected with Virginia, and chatted with her over email.


MFG: What changes have you seen since getting your factory Fair Trade certified? 


V: We have received the Fair Trade certification for all our current facilities last November, and are in the process of getting our newly acquired sewing plant certified. This was thanks to the work done in collaboration with J Crew and Madewell. Our facilities are now eligible to manufacture and sell products according to Fair Trade’s strict social, environmental and economic standards. Fair Trade is a certification that allowed us to get the good work that was done in Saitex recognized. We are proud to say that our sustainability standards have always been high, but now we can better communicate this to our workers and the rest of the world. 


Along with the Fair Trade certification, came a training that deepened even further our way of thinking about or workers’ wellbeing, both at management and staff level. The Fair Trade program includes a contribution from the brands for every Fair Trade product manufactured. Workers are empowered by an election system, through which team representatives are elected. They are then in charge of deciding how to deploy those funds, in whichever project they think would benefit the employees best. Workers are therefore included in the decision-making process. This is a unique opportunity to create a direct connection between our employees and the brands, through an outside organization. Our employees feel valued by the brands that show they care about who makes the clothes, and appreciate their contribution to the whole. 

Photo via Saitex

From now on, each time a Fair Trade garment is produced, our employees will receive additional funding to use how they want. This means that Fair Trade isn’t a single improvement to meet standards: there will be many projects in the future thanks to it. 

One of Saitex’s employees said, "What makes me the most excited about Fair Trade is that we have the right to decide how to use those benefits."


We will see further changes when the funds will be deployed. We are very excited and curious to find out what project will be chosen. It could be any kind of social project, or support to neighboring communities. Fair Trade has given our employees the understanding that they work in a company that cares about them, beyond the common social activities. By increasing their satisfaction, Saitex will gain competitive advantage and become an employer of choice, benefitting everyone. 


MFG: Have you seen an increase in demand/more business since getting Fair Trade certified?


V: We are very happy to announce that we are already starting the program with a third client. Once the factories are certified, it is easier to work on single Fair Trade products. 

Furthermore, brands that come visit our factories and contact us about working together are extremely happy to learn that we are certified. The latest one was a brand that only manufactures Fair Trade, and they were pleased to hear that we already had the certification. By being Fair Trade manufacturers, we can also inspire existing customers to get involved with the initiative, and help to expand even further the Fair Trade community.  The future will see companies that are interested in circular economy and its effects on society. This means that manufacturers will become more efficient and automated, but they will also have to think more about the effects of their operations on the planet and the people.

MFG: What were the elections for the fair trade committee like? What does it mean to the committee members to be elected and become decision makers? 


V: Members were elected by every team, and results were checked to make sure there was no bias. The process was different from other initiatives because employees were completely free to vote [for] who their representatives would be, and felt included in deciding who the people who had decision-making power would be. The PMT Chair-person says: "I am extremely proud for having been elected. What makes me most excited about the Fair Trade program is that all workers can benefit from it." Elected members have a direct connection with our customers, and understand that this is a very important position to be in.


Browse & shop the Fair Trade Madewell collection here, and the J.Crew collection here.

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