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How ethical is fashion in India? Abhishek Jani, CEO, Fairtrade India

Francesca Ferrario
22nd Apr 2015
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The booming fashion industry in India is thrilling producers, retailers, and customers. Innovative shapes, colours, fabrics, and concepts are reflecting in the thousands of clothes and accessories sold in the country. This kaleidoscopic development of the fashion industry often hides its darker sides which remain invisible. Abhishek Jani, CEO of Fairtrade India, sheds some light on how this sector negatively impacts farmers who are at the beginning of the production chain, and also the most vulnerable to fluctuations in mass production.


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How do you define fairtrade fashion?

Fairtrade fashion is about making mainstream brands fairer. It’s not about changing our fashion sense but critically ensuring that what we are wearing is not made by exploiting vulnerable farmers and workers. Fairtrade fashion is about providing consumers with informed choices. I wonder how many of us would accept to pay less for our clothes if we knew they were produced by farmers lumbered with unsustainable debt, or by workers exploited in bonded-labour like conditions.

How is the fashion industry impacting the bottom level of the production chain?

‘Pressure’ is a key word to explain this concept: firstly, pressure is on the environment due to the pollution caused by the production processes; secondly, it is on the farmers in terms of price for their cotton. This year cotton prices in India declined by 20 per cent, and nearly 70 per cent of the 2,96,000 farmer suicides in India have taken place in the cotton belt. Finally, pressure is further up the value chain where the textile industry is being pushed to produce our clothing at increasingly lower prices. This invariably results in lower wages and working standards for the textile and garment workers.

This process allows consumers to buy ‘affordable clothing’, but marginal farmers get trapped in economical and working constraints from which they can’t see a way out.


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How negative or positive is the economic role of the global market?

There are two sides to the role played by global markets. On the one hand,they provide global opportunities for farmers and businesses in India; for example, for the past 19 years fairtrade farmers and certified businesses have been catering to the international fairtrade market.

On the other hand, global markets come with global risks – especially in a commoditised world where fluctuations in price, variations in demand/supply, and other events like political phenomena in one country can affect what happens in the other. This higher risk in an already vulnerable agricultural sector can play havoc. The 20 per cent drop in Indian cotton prices was because of global factors.

What are farmers and artisans’ main requests?

Farmers demand that more of their cotton be sold on Fairtrade terms. According to an independent study, farmers only start seeing significant benefits of fairtrade when at least 40 per cent of their produce is sold on Fairtrade terms.

How is Fairtrade India approaching this problem?

In India, Fairtrade is working with over 10,000 farmers from some of the poorest parts of the country in Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, and Madhya Pradesh. We look at the issues at each point of the value chain/production process to ensure that the marginal and vulnerable are treated fairly.

A major focus for Fairtrade India is on ensuring that the small and marginal farmers growing cotton earn a fair and sustainable income for their produce. Fairtrade standards, which the producers and buyers must commit to, emphasise on the payment of a fair price to the farmers as well as investments in the producer communities called Fairtrade Premium. This is used by the farmers for a range of social and economic projects ranging from scholarships for their children to rain water harvesting and drip irrigation. Also, the farmers agree to a number of social and environmental practices, which ensure that the environment is protected and that the vulnerable members of their community– children and women– are empowered.


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Fairtrade also directly engages with the end consumers to raise awareness of the issues in the fashion and apparel value chains and how it is important that the civil society demand that they get exploitation-free products. The power to bring about this change is with you and me –through the choices we make and the values we demand.

Can you point out some companies which are successfully implementing fairtrade fashion in India?

A number of young brands are leading the fairtrade campaign for change and are bringing out amazing designs and clothing so that consumers don’t have to change their look to subscribe to more ethical beliefs. Brands like No Nasties, Samtana, Do U Speak Green, and Dibella India are driving the fairtrade fashion in India.

Businesses which focus on capacity-building for farmers in terms of skills development – value addition at source, knowledge sharing, access to finance and insurance, and access to markets through ethical and fair channels – can be of tremendous support and value for our producers.We have initiated conversations with some of the mainstream fashion brands in India. But these are very early days to figure out whether they are willing to change and provide consumers with ethical clothing choices.


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What are the main challenges you have faced so far?

Fairtrade India is a relatively new initiative: it was launched in November 2013. In this short period, we have managed to get engagement from some socially responsible businesses, but a lot more businesses need to be engaged and actively involved.

Another challenge for us is that awareness about fairtrade continues to be low across India. Though those who know about it support the principle and buy fairtrade products, we have a long way to go. To put in perspective in European countries where fairtrade has been active for over 20 years the awareness levels are high, 70 per cent higher. Whereas in recently concluded survey, in India we found that about only 7 per cent of the urban population is aware of the concept of fairtrade.

On April 24, Fairtrade India is hosting the Show Your Label campaign to encourage consumers to question where the clothes they buy come from, who produces them, and how they produce them. Check their page to learn more about ethical fashion.


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