This is an open question asked on Quora, the qualified questions & answers community. I apparently was the first one to provide an answer.
Our answer is part of an ongoing clarification and training effort we are leading on fair trade. Here goes the answer (edited a bit for this site).
Fairtrade cotton standards
There currently is no international certification for clothing products recognized by the fair trade movement. Traditionnally, fair trade has been more involved in products from agriculture and handicraft. In 2006, Max Havelaar France began investigating for standards on cotton for FLO (Fairtrade Labelling Organisations) International, and a standard on cotton emerged and has been developing since. It was first applied to cotton from producers in West Africa, and has been open recently to producers in India and other countries as well.
Complexity of certifying textile
Certifying cotton as fair trade doesn’t mean all the production process of clothes and textile comply to what has been defined as fair trade standards (fair price, transparency of trade relationships, prefinancing…). Textile has one of the longest supply chain, and involves many steps of transformation, that are done in low or middle-income countries. Fair trade standards designed for primary products have to be adapted or even redesigned by Max Havelaar France and FLO International to adapt to complex products. Whether FLO’s solution is best is open to analysis. Let us briefly describe it: FLO International relies on CSR (corporate social responsibility) certifications, such as UN-backed GRI (Global Reporting Initiative), SA 8000 (a private initiative) or others to garantee minimum standards for textiles made from fair trade cotton.The link at this level with fair trade principles is weak, as CSR is substantially different than fair trade.
Because of those limits, Fair Trade USA has published in December 2010 what here representatives described to us as:
the first pilot standards for apparel and linen products, after four years of pilot testing, research and development at sites in India, Peru, Liberia and Mali. The standards certify both farmers and factories alike to ensure that all principles if fair trade are met. About a dozen brands have launched clothing including Liberty&Justice, prAna, maggie’s Organics, HAE Now.
Just as cotton certification by Max Havelaar France was a pilot project for FLO International, so is apparel and linen standards for Fair Trade USA. However, at the present time, we couldn’t put a hand on related standards. We’ll investigate for our readers…
Other options chosen by clothing brands
Fair trade has been strongly associated with commodities, which is why small and medium start ups concerned by conditions producers and workers in the transformation industries identify more with the concept of ethical fashion than fair trade labelling, which is for the moment in this sector limited to cotton producers. The Ethical Fashion Show has had some success in the last years in promoting ethical principles within young brand creators. Fair trade shops also monitor conditions along alternative clothing they offer to consumers, without necessarily resorting to formal certification. Less known clothes brands follow the fair trade retail model.
To go further
- Standards for Fairtrade cotton (pdf download)
- Fairtrade USA apparel & linen page. Watch this page for (hopefully) future information on related standards.
- Ethical Fashion Forum
- Ethical Fashion Show