The term “fair trade” is battered around a lot these days. But what exactly does it mean, and who writes the rules?
At Maggie’s, our company began with a challenge: Was it possible to establish a successful, sustainable business while protecting the limited resources of the planet, and while respecting and dignifying each worker who makes the business run?
We never called it “fair trade”, or “ethical business” or “quadruple bottom line” or certainly not “holier than thou." We just came to work each day, and asked questions about everything: How much the farmer who grew the cotton was paid? Why were sewers remunerated by the piece and not by the hour? What was in that effluent water running out of the dye plant? Why did we need to source a machine in Asia when there was a slower one that was more energy-efficient built in Haw River, North Carolina?
And each time the responses to those questions forced us to make tough decisions, we dug deep and answered based on what we thought was the truth.
Business, really, is about exploiting resources. You take a raw material, in our case, organic cotton or organic wool, and you change it. You strip off the leaves, you line all the fibers up in a row, you twist the fibers, you add dye, you knit, you cut, you sew. It all takes energy, and resources, and human hands. And our approach has been to do all of this as close together as possible, and to do it with a honest effort to minimize our exploitation of resources...both the earth’s and the earth’s inhabitants’.
And one day people started calling what we do “fair trade”...and asking us to jump on all sorts of bandwagons.
At first we were shy, and reserved, and didn’t really want to toot our own horn. I mean, we are not perfect, so how can we really be sure that our workers, and our farmers, have a better life than the next guy? Is any worker ever completely satisfied with their job? This is just the way we choose to do do business..and it truly appeals to our sense of logic: Of course we want to treat the soil and the farmers well - we want them to keep providing us with the best quality cotton. Why wouldn’t we want sewers who had a vested interest in more than just the seam they sew, but in the entire pair of Leggings they produce for us? Our Leggings will be better quality that way.
And then we started getting ‘vetted’, by all these third party certifiers and standards-bearers. Some of them, we thought, were silly and superficial. We’d pay lots of money to get some seal, but it really didn’t change anything: It didn’t cause us to improve our way of doing business; It didn’t get our farmers or workers better wages or working conditions. In fact, our suppliers found these certifications to be cumbersome distractions: If we already paid them the fair trade price for their cotton, why were we spending all the money just to have someone say that we were? If we thought their product was worth more money, why not just raise their prices, instead of creating of a social premium and suggesting how they spend it? If every company that applies receives the certification, then what really makes it special? And if the “seal” takes a % of every sale of a product that bears its name, then where is the real incentive to improve the lives of the makers of these products?
And when we were vetted by the more thorough standards, the ones that truly examined our entire supply chain, we were consistently accoladed:
Maggie's receives an A+, the highest rating of 300 apparel brands, in an independent study funded by the Department of State which ranks labor conditions.
- (http://www.free2work.org/trends/apparel/) 2012
“The members of the screening committee were so appreciative of your extremely thorough application! They particularly commended the way evaluation and reevaluation of fair trade practices is institutionalized within the structure of your business.
” - Fair Trade Federation 2014
So after all the examining and all of the various symbols, we have pretty much come back to square one: We still run our business and make our daily decisions in the same way, and we also try to be as transparent as possible, about each step of each supply chain. And we have come to call what we do “real fair trade”.
Below are a few examples of what we call "real fair trade":
- We purchase our own raw cotton and wool directly from the growers. This guarantees them a market, and guarantees our customers consistent quality and supply. Establishing long term relationships with our producers and making financial investments in their work is what we call real fair trade
- We contract directly with our farmers, and pay them a deposit ($400 per every 1000 lbs) the month before they plant. This deposit covers the cost of their seeds and planting costs, and allows them to share the risk with us if the crop fails. Sharing risks with cooperative farmers is what we call real fair trade.
- We pay for an entire harvest as soon as it comes out of the ground.
Taking the time and effort to understand the overall financial status of our farmers is what we call real fair trade.
- We process and hold all organic cotton and all organic wool used in our socks in our own warehouse in North Carolina. This allow our knitters to purchase it in small amounts against our POs, and helps their cash flow immensely.
Assisting the financial needs of our knitters and keeping jobs in the USA is what we call real fair trade.
- We minimize our carbon footprint by making ALL of EVERY Maggie’s product in the Americas, and over 65% of our products in the U.S.A.
Limiting our carbon footprint to 1500 miles, instead of 5300, is what we call real fair trade.
- We place our orders according to the lot size of each producers’ equipment. This minimizes waste, and helps production scheduling.
Communication with and respect for our vendors is what we call real fair trade.
- We include our sewers and our cutters, not just the “bosses”, but the workers, in our design decisions and seam construction. This makes them partners in our vision, and helps make our construction more efficient.
Frequent and honest interaction with many employees at our production facilities is what we call real fair trade.
- We develop our supply chains from the ground up, and we stay with these chains as long as they are able to produce. We do not put suppliers into ‘bidding wars’ in order to save money.
Providing long-term commitments to our partners is what we call real fair trade.
- We know most workers and each production facility - not just the the owners and bosses. We know when there kids are sick and we hear about their basketball games. We laugh with them, and we have cried with them.
Reviewing all employment practices of companies we work with is what we call real fair trade.
- We process our own Organic Wool tops from start to finish - investing 3 months and many steps just to make the yarn used in our Killington Hikers. And it is all done at a 200-year old spinning mill in rural Massachusetts.
Revitalizing the heritage of appropriate technology, and respecting the hands that create functional goods for our world is what we call real fair trade.
Dedication to the supply chains we develop over years is what we call real fair trade.
Working with suppliers to constantly improve quality without raising prices is what we call real fair trade.
Constantly listening and learning from our suppliers as well as our customers is what we call real fair trade.
Seeking out producers as close to home as possible, and working with them to develop lower impact input processes is what we call real fair trade.
Responding to what farmers say they need, instead of purchasing what will look good in PR photos, is what we call real fair trade.
Working with our supply chains on continuous improvement in quality, environmental improvement, and living conditions is what we call real fair trade.
Fair trade means different things to different organizations and individuals. Above is what is means to us at Maggie’s.