Fair Trade Is the Pathway to Regenerative Agriculture

Author: Fair World Project | Published: September 2017 

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Interview With Andrew Morgan: The Director of The True Cost

The film The True Cost is a story about clothing. It is about the clothes we wear, the people who make them, and the impact the industry is having on our world. The price of clothing has been decreasing for decades, while the human and environmental costs have grown dramatically. The True Cost is a groundbreaking documentary film that pulls back the curtain on the untold story and asks us to consider: Who really pays the price for our clothing?

Dana Geffner, Executive Director of Fair World Project, sat down with the Director of The True Cost to learn why this story was so important to tell and what we as consumers can do to stop exploitation in the clothing industry.

Q:  Why did you decide to make this movie and tell this story?

Andrew:  I do not have a background in fashion and never thought about making this kind of film. I started to become interested about the role that business plays in the world in relation to human rights, extreme poverty, inequality and environmental impact. I began to believe that solutions to our problems will invariably be through business. As a filmmaker, it was too big to tackle, and I could not get my arms around that film. Then I picked up the newspaper and read about this clothing factory collapsing in Rana Plaza [in Bangladesh] and read that, at the time of the collapse, they were making clothes for major western brands that I knew. I read this horrifying account of how something I interact with every day in my world is having this unseen impact in other peoples’ lives all over the world. That instantly grabbed me, and within a week, we decided this was a film we wanted to make.

Q:  The film shows locations from all over the world. Where did you go, and whom did you interview?

Andrew:  We filmed in thirteen countries. This needed to be a global film because it is one of the true major global issues of our times. It does not matter what country you live in, this affects human beings, and I wanted to make a film that went to so many places that you almost forgot where you were. So the focus is not really on the place, but rather that it is our shared home. So that took us to really rich, beautiful parts of the world. We filmed during all the major fashion weeks in London, Paris, Milan, New York and Los Angeles. It also took us all over Southeast Asia: Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, Hong Kong, Japan, India and Uganda. The focus was really on the stories of the people we followed.

We followed a twenty-two year-old garment worker named Shima Akter who works in Dhaka, Bangladesh. We followed a woman named Safia Minney, who owns a fair trade clothing company called People Tree, in London and Tokyo. And then we followed a cotton farmer in Luc, Texas named Lorey Pepper. Around those three stories we met a whole bunch of experts, from economists to really big influencers in the fashion space, and both activists and traditional designers, people like Stella McCartney and brands like Patagonia.

Q:  How has the fashion industry changed?

Andrew:  One of the startling facts is that the world consumes 400% more clothing right now than it did two decades ago. The world now makes between 80-90 billion new articles of clothing each year. This has created a real shift; clothing historically has been something we made with great intentionality and integrity, something we held onto our whole lives and even passed on to our children. It was something we valued.

The impacts of a global economy have allowed us to offshore labor, cut costs and produce mass quantities of clothing much more cheaply. Clothing has now become a commodity that we see as disposable, and that is really brand new in the history of fashion. It is a very modern concept to be able to buy things that are so cheap that it means nothing if they fall apart after a few wears. That volume increase and shift in mindset have turned up the dial on some already very problematic issues, making it now nothing short of a state of crisis or emergency in a lot of areas.

Q:  The term “fast fashion” is talked about in the film. What is fast fashion?

Andrew:  “Fast fashion” is a term that parallels “fast food” and implies that it probably is not very good for us. Fast fashion was initiated when brands began to copy design looks from runway shows. They put them through production and manufacturing at lightning speeds in order to have them in stores within weeks, and sometimes days, after they were seen on the runways.

But this supply chain is dangerously fast and precariously volatile. We are incentivizing a constant state of rush, a constant state of “How fast can we get it there?” and “What corners can we cut?” Those cut corners led to the egregious and extreme cases of human exploitation and tragedy that have recently grabbed the world’s attention.

Q:  Why is fast fashion happening? Who is demanding it?

Andrew:  From one standpoint, we live in a market-driven, consumer-based, consumption-fueled economy. The mandatory ingredient for our economy to grow is for consumption to be kept very high all the time. Our standard economic model only measures profit, while many of the costs that go into making things are unseen. We do not factor in the use of natural resources, like water and other resources that are increasingly scarce in parts of the world where things are being made. People want to buy the cheapest things. As consumers, we judge products on whether they look good and are cheap. So, in that regard, the market incentivizes the lowest-quality product.

We can also look at it in another way – a lot of essential items have become more expensive, like insurance, homes, a college education and healthcare, while other things have become less expensive, like clothing. So when my life feels less in my control, I can find therapy in buying something super-cheap. So, as the middle class gets squeezed an

d is unable to control the prices of these essential items, then there is a natural movement towards feeling in control by buying these cheap pieces of clothing.


Fair World Project Launches Grow Ahead Crowdfunding Platform to Facilitate Direct Lending and More for Small-scale Farmers

Published: May 3, 2017 

Leading fair trade advocacy organization, Fair World Project (FWP), has announced the launch of Grow Ahead, a crowdfunding platform to facilitate direct lending, farmer-to-farmer trainings, and scholarships to support farmer-led agroecology projects throughout the Global South. Individual consumers can forge an intimate link with frontline farmer organizations, directly fund farmer initiatives, and support the global effort to address climate change on the farm.

“Small-scale farmer organizations in the developing world are historically under-resourced, with limited access to the capital needed to grow their organizations beyond their day-to-day needs. Most development funding for agriculture is focused on industrial and chemical-dependent practices, often through a single company’s supply chain, or as part of an initiative focused on a single technology. Grow Ahead intends to bridge the resource and funding gap, acting as a launch pad for larger, regional agroecological development campaigns that focus on whole farm systems, not solely on individual commodities,” states Fair World Project Executive Director Dana Geffner.

In 2015, Fair World Project (FWP) collaborated with the Latin American and Caribbean Network of Fair Trade Small Producers (CLAC) in a contest soliciting small-scale farmer groups to share their experiences and best practices in confronting climate change in their communities. Farmer submissions demonstrated impressive steps to adjust to the growing challenge of climate change, by diversifying farms, promoting on-farm innovation, and improving soil fertility, among other practices. To read more about this project,

“These agroecological strategies for combating climate change and feeding hungry communities, such as use of cover-crops and compost to sequester carbon and boost soil fertility and organic matter, must be a global priority, scaling up and out in coming years. Small-scale farmer organizations have the potential to quickly and effectively implement cost-effective climate-resilient tactics, while simultaneously generating a multiplier effect, expanding their experience and organizational impact,” states Grow Ahead Director Ryan Zinn.

Despite the serious threat that climate change poses to humanity in general, and to small-scale farmers in particular, proven solutions like small-scale regenerative agriculture that have a long track record of success. However, these regenerative methods proven to mitigate climate change receive little government or market support and safeguards.


Approach With Caution: An Assessment of Fair Trade USA’s Domestic Labeling Initiative

Authors: Dana Geffner and Kerstin Lindgren| Published: May 5, 2017 

Fair Trade USA’s (FTUSA) label is showing up on fruits and vegetables in produce departments around the country. Unfortunately, that’s not necessarily a step forward for farmworkers.

In Fair World Project’s recent report Justice in the Fields we evaluate seven different labels claiming to benefit farmworkers either domestically or internationally. We conclude that Fair Trade USA (FTUSA) is a program to “Approach With Caution”. We recommend four other labels ahead of FTUSA.

As we explain in our report, fair trade is a movement and a market descriptor that emerged out of the need for marginalized small-scale producers in the global south to organize and gain access to global markets. The application of the term “fair trade” to an ever-expanding scope of geographies and production settings is confusing and misleading to consumers who rely on it to identify products made by small-scale producers. This expansion of scope also threatens small-scale producers who suddenly find themselves competing against large-scale producers using the same term. These are real concerns that also led us to rate Fair Trade USA poorly as a farmworker justice label. This “Approach With Caution” warning applies equally to FTUSA’s more established work on medium- to large-scale farms in the Global South.

The concerns we outline here also mirror similar concerns with FTUSA’s separate standards for fisheries and apparel, both of which are also now open to domestic production and labeling.

Why Approach Fair Trade USA with Caution?

FTUSA may be the program with the most marketing resources, but they are not the program closest to the ground. That means there has been a lot of buzz about FTUSA’s entry into the domestic market and the casual observer may be led to believe they are the only alternative to the conventional system of low wages and poor conditions on the field. Not only is that not true, the net benefit of this labeling program may well be negative as it draws attention away from stronger, farmer-led programs.

The reality is that three of the four programs we rated higher than FTUSA are U.S. programs that have been working in this context for longer than FTUSA. And although union membership in general is down, independent, grassroots unions like Familias Unidas por la Justicia are breathing new life into this tried and true organizing model.

While it is certainly true that there is room for multiple approaches to provide a remedy and alternative to exploitation on the field, our analysis revealed that FTUSA’s approach does not add any strong or unique features to the landscape. It is, at best, a corporate social responsibility program.

Farmworker-Led: Does It Really Matter?

We often say that all stakeholders, especially intended beneficiaries, of any program need to be at the table for its development, enforcement, and monitoring. This may sound like an academic ideal, or even just a courtesy to include those who are the target beneficiaries. But having multiple representatives of beneficiaries and a balanced stakeholder development is vital. If you look at the Fair Trade USA standards, you may see that they include common sense elements. Workers must wear protective equipment, workers must be paid directly for all work they perform on a regular schedule, workers must have rest breaks and work overtime only if willing. These are all good basic requirements and, unfortunately, not guaranteed on conventional farms.

In contrast, Agricultural Justice Project (AJP), Fair Food Program (FFP), and Equitable Food Initiative (EFI) were all created with farmworker organizations as founding members and, although they take different approaches and have room for improvement, have one or more elements that positions them as leaders in the field—and shows the importance of farmworker perspective in the development of standards.

AJP requires phasing out piece rate, a form of payment associated with wage theft, increased physical risk, and discrimination, requires living wages or transparent pay negotiations between farmworkers and managers, and requires toxin reduction and least toxic alternatives to pesticides and other chemicals to be used in all cases.

FFP requires all farmworkers to be hired directly by the farm, increasing accountability. FFP has also developed a model complaints resolution program and a legally binding mechanism to transfer money directly from the most profitable end of the supply chain to the most economically disadvantaged.

EFI has developed comprehensive training programs for both auditors and on-farm leadership committees.

While FTUSA covers the bare bones minimum requirements for working conditions, they fail to cover new ground or take the lead in fair pay, democratic organization, or other key areas of worker empowerment. Instead, in an industry known for its exploitation of workers, FTUSA’s standards stick to small improvements that could best be described as adequate.

Adequate Standards, Inadequate Enforcement

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, the farmworker organization that developed the FFP, makes the strong case that standards without enforcement amount to empty promises. FFP’s enforcement elements include worker-to-worker training, a 24-hour complaints hotline that has become a hallmark of the program, and legally binding contracts with market consequences for non-compliance.

AJP’s monitoring and enforcement incorporates independent worker organizations that help conduct worker interviews and remain available in between audits to hear worker complaints.

Annual audits are very important in understanding how a certified entity operates. But they are not sufficient to understand the full picture of what is happening, especially when announced ahead of time. If a farm is employing child labor, for example, they may ask the children to stay home the day of the audit. Protective equipment may be dusted off and handed out for the audit period even if workers don’t have consistent access throughout the year. A group of workers may be consistently assigned fields were conditions are least favorable (lower yielding plants, for example, on a farm where workers are paid by what they are able to pick) and that might not be clear to an auditor based on a day or week of observation.

Workers must be able to describe in their own words through interviews and complaint resolution channels what is really going on and how well their needs are being met. They also must be empowered to improve their conditions, both by reporting violations of established standards, and in proposing innovations. FTUSA relies too heavily on annual audits conducted by professional auditors without farmworker organization participation. Though farms do have some worker committees, the mandated committees have a narrow scope: administration of a premium or making recommendations for health and safety improvements. These committees are not guaranteed to have the authority or power to investigate the full range of worker grievances or to negotiate with management beyond their narrow scope.

There is too much margin for complaints to be buried or missed in this system and not enough opportunities for workers to be empowered to change their own pay and conditions. With inadequate enforcement, barely adequate standards quickly become meaningless.


What Happens When Fashion Becomes Fast, Disposable and Cheap?

Author: Zhai Yun Tan | Published on: April 10, 2016

When it comes to clothes these days, maybe you should ask: What’s your waste size?

You know you have those clothes sitting in your closet: That shirt you spent less than $10 on because it looked cool for a second, or that skirt you only wore once before it went out of fashion.

Fashion cycles are moving faster than ever. A Quartz article in December revealed how fashion brands like Zara, Gap and Adidas are churning out new styles more frequently, a trend dubbed “fast fashion” by many in the industry. The clothes that are mass-produced also become more affordable, thus attracting consumers to buy more.

“It used to be four seasons in a year; now it may be up to 11 or 15 or more,” says Tasha Lewis, a professor at Cornell University’s Department of Fiber Science and Apparel Design.

The top fast fashion retailers grew 9.7 percent per year over the last five years, topping the 6.8 percent of growth of traditional apparel companies, according to financial holding company CIT.


Cotton Trade: Where Does Your T-Shirt Grow?

Author: Susanna Rustin | Published on: August 9, 2014

Moise Adihou stands by a rough wooden bench beneath a mango tree, surrounded by a small crowd that has gathered to hear his story.

“We were in the field,” he says. “Abraham came to visit after school to tell us he came first in his class. We were happy, so we wanted to celebrate.”

Adihou is a neat, sombre man in his 50s, and what he is describing took place in the village of Gaohungagon in the Zou department of Benin, West Africa. Abraham was 13 and Adihou’s eldest child.


Fast Fashion Is Creating an Environmental Crisis

Author: Alden Wicker | Published on: September 1, 2016

Visitors who stepped into fashion retailer H&M’s showroom in New York City on April 4, 2016, were confronted by a pile of cast-off clothing reaching to the ceiling. A T.S. Eliot quote stenciled on the wall (“In my end is my beginning”) gave the showroom the air of an art gallery or museum. In the next room, reporters and fashion bloggers sipped wine while studying the half-dozen mannequins wearing bespoke creations pieced together from old jeans, patches of jackets and cut-up blouses.

This cocktail party was to celebrate the launch of H&M’s most recent Conscious Collection. The actress Olivia Wilde, spokeswoman and model for H&M’s forays into sustainable fashion, was there wearing a new dress from the line. But the fast-fashion giant, which has almost 4,000 stores worldwide and earned over $25 billion in sales in 2015, wanted participants to also take notice of its latest initiative: getting customers to recycle their clothes. Or, rather, convincing them to bring in their old clothes (from any brand) and put them in bins in H&M’s stores worldwide. “H&M will recycle them and create new textile fibre, and in return you get vouchers to use at H&M. Everybody wins!” H&M said on its blog.

It’s a nice sentiment, but it’s a gross oversimplification. Only 0.1 percent of all clothing collected by charities and take-back programs is recycled into new textile fiber, according to H&M’s development sustainability manager, Henrik Lampa, who was at the cocktail party answering questions from the press. And despite the impressive amount of marketing dollars the company pumped into World Recycle Week to promote the idea of recycling clothes—including the funding of a music video by M.I.A.—what H&M is doing is nothing special. Its salvaged clothing goes through almost the exact same process as garments donated to, say, Goodwill, or really anywhere else.


The Touch, the Feel, of GE Cotton?

(Beyond Pesticides, October 8, 2014) After headliners like genetically engineered (GE) Roundup-Ready corn and soybeans failed to deliver on claims of decreased pesticide use and environmental sustainability, instead leading to the rise of “superweeds,” the U.S. Department of Agriculture approved more dangerous, 2,4-D-resistent versions   shortly after. Now after the predictable failure of Roundup-Ready cotton, USDA is set to approve dicamba-tolerant GE cotton, coming soon to a t-shirt near you.   Feeling a bit itchy now?

USDA’s proposal to deregulate and allow into the environment yet another GE variety will inevitably lead to damaging effects on non-GE crops, native plant species, and environmental biodiversity. USDA acknowledges that the purpose of dicamba-tolerant cotton “is to provide growers with an additional in-crop weed management option to manage [glyphosate resistant] broadleaf weed species,” but introducing crops resistant to other chemical technologies like dicamba may provide short-term relief from resistant weeds, but is not a long-term, sustainable solution to burgeoning weed resistance. This current proposal also includes dicamba-tolerant soybean, as well as a stacked tolerance to the herbicide glufosinate.

Contrary to industry proclamations, providing these GE “tools” to farmers only keeps them on a perpetual chemical treadmill that continues to propagate resistant weeds, endanger our environment, health, and agricultural economy.


Microfiber Madness: Synthetic Fabrics Harm Wildlife, Poison the Food Supply and Expose You to Toxic Chemicals

Author: Reynard Loki | Published on: July 20, 2016

Doing laundry isn’t something most of us enjoy doing. And now the evidence is clear that the world’s aquatic animals don’t enjoy it either. It turns out that clothes made from synthetic fibers shed tiny plastic microfibers in every wash. This fibrous debris goes from your washing machine, through the municipal sewage system and ends up in all sorts of waterways—marine, coastal and freshwater—where the tiny fibers are ingested by fish, crabs and other aquatic wildlife. In turn, many of these animals end up in our food supply—and on our dinner plates. It seems we are slowly, and literally, eating the shirts off our backs.

A host of recent studies have sounded alarm bells. One frightening conclusion is that these microfibers—a subcategory of microplastics—are even more pervasive in the environment than microbeads, tiny plastic beads common in beauty products that were recently banned in the United States.

One of first researchers to lift the veil on this environmental crisis was ecologist Mark Browne. In 2011, Browne, now a senior research associate at the University of New South Wales in Australia, published a paper in the journal Environmental Science and Technology that concluded microfibers from synthetic fabrics like nylon and acrylic make up 85 percent of human-made debris across the world’s shorelines. The vast majority of that synthetic waste is being released from clothing when it’s washed in laundry machines.


Cotton, Cashmere, Chemicals – What Really Goes Into Making Your Clothes?

Author: Elizabeth Grossman | Published on: June 12, 2015

The US Federal Trade Commission has something to say about what you wear.

While not a fashion arbiter and unable to advise on attire for family gatherings, the FTC oversees what appears on the labels inside your clothes. As the federal agency responsible for enforcing the Textile Products Identification Act and related laws, it makes sure clothing is accurately labeled with its fabric content. But it turns out, apart from these laws (and a few — including some state laws — that restrict certain hazardous substances from being used in children’s clothing), there is no overarching US law that regulates or requires listing of materials outside of fabrics that go into producing our clothing.

Why does this matter? Because manufacturers use hundreds of substances to produce clothing that don’t show up on clothing labels. And many of these are hazardous to the environment and to human health.