Where to Find Fair Trade and Ethically-Sourced Clothing

2018 update: We still stand by this advice on where to find fair trade and ethical clothing for work, and links have been updated below. You may also want to check out our Guide to Slow Fashion.

In our first post in our ethical shopping series, we rounded up several clothing brands made in the United States, mostly startups and small and/or independent labels, and in part two, we shared a list of mainstream, more widely available workwear brands that sell clothing made in North America or Europe. Today we’re looking at clothing that’s fair trade certified, as well as clothing not officially considered fair trade but produced more responsibly or ethically than the average brand.

Of course, when a brand makes admirable claims like those, we as shoppers simply have to take their word for it — but I would rather give my business to a company that states that it’s committed to ethical labor practices and fair trade than to one who doesn’t say a word about its products’ origins or production. (Pictured: Brooks Brothers Stretch Wool Sheath Dress, $158.)

Fair trade certification is more complicated than you might think; there’s more than one certifying organization, and each has a slightly different definition of the term “fair trade.” It’s also possible that we may not be doing as much good as we think by buying these products. Ndongo Sylla, a former Fairtrade International employee with a PhD in developmental economics, wrote a book called The Fair Trade Scandal: Marketing Poverty to Benefit the Rich (excerpt here in The Guardian). In The Economist‘s book review, the reviewer called it “an arduous read” but wrote, “It is hard to dispute [Sylla’s] conclusion that, so far, the fair-trade labelling movement has been more about easing consciences in rich countries than making serious inroads into poverty in the developing world.” (Sigh.)

That said, here are several brands that engage in fair trade:

Fair Trade Fashion 

  • IndigenousCertified as a B Corporation, this California-based company’s clothing — made solely from natural fibers and with environmentally-friendly dyes — is produced through fair trade in South America. The styles are mostly suited to business casual and casual/creative dress codes.
  • Nomads ClothingA member of the Ethical Fashion Forum and the British Association of Fair Trade Shops, this UK company’s offerings are produced in line with fair trade policies. Much of the clothing, which is made from organic cotton and colored with eco-friendly dyes, is work-appropriate, although most of it would be best for business casual and casual/creative offices.
  • Noonday Collection: A member of the Fair Trade Federation, this company sources its products from 29 artisan businesses in 12 countries. It offers jewelry, scarves, and bags, some of which are office-appropriate.
  • Ten Thousand Villages: The only nonprofit organization on our list, Ten Thousand Villages — which was founded in 1946 — has hundreds of brick-and-mortar stores as well as an online storefront. A member of the World Fair Trade Organization, the company holds fair trade partnerships with artisans around the world and is committed to environmentally-friendly practices. It offers jewelry (tending toward statement pieces) and accessories (as well as gifts and home items).

Imported But Ethically-Made Clothing (may not be “fair trade”)

  • Accompany: The website for this Certified B Corporation tells customers that its mission is to “ensure our merchandise meets the standards in at least one of these three key areas” — the three being “artisan made,” “fair trade,” and “philanthropic.” Much of Accompany’s offerings are too casual for the office, but there are some workwear possibilities, including some jewelry and scarves.
  • Brooks Brothers: Brooks Brothers holds its producers to strict rules that are explained in detail on its website, and it only deals with direct suppliers that meet its Code of Conduct. (Check out our post, “How to Build a Work Wardrobe at… Brooks Brothers.”)
  • EthicaThis NYC company’s website offers clothing and beauty products from ethically-produced, environmentally-friendly brands and lets you shop by category: sustainable, made in the U.S.A., trade not aid, handcrafted, and vegan. (Its detailed explanations for each category are here.) Much of the clothing isn’t work-appropriate, but many of the shoes and bags are.
  • Naja: Naja’s lingerie (in seven nude-for-you shades), activewear, and swimwear are made by a factory that employs single mothers and women heads of households who are paid above-market wages and provided health benefits and child education stipends. Each purchase comes with a lingerie the women’s continuing education. The company includes some fabrics made from recycled plastic bottles and uses digital fabric printing that drastically reduces water waste.
  • Reformation: Reformation is all about celebrating bodies — and preserving the earth — with responsive, super-sustainable designs. This means sketches that come to life in a month, a meticulous approach to determining fit, eco-friendly buildings and, of course, a collection of need-now silhouettes made from ethically sourced materials, rescued deadstock fabrics, and repurposed vintage clothing. (Also available at Nordstrom!)
  • Raven + Lily: Certified B Corporation, Raven + Lily is a member of the Fair Trade Federation and Ethical Fashion Forum and sells clothing, accessories, and home items. The company pays fair-trade wages to 1,500 at-risk women in 10 countries around the world (for example, women who are human trafficking survivors or who are HIV-positive), and part of their profits fund microloans to woman entrepreneurs. They use recycled and repurposed materials.
    Most of the clothing is appropriate for business casual offices.
  • St. John: St. John’s corporate responsibility page states that its business partners are monitored for humane and ethical business practices and compliance with labor and environmental laws as well as adherence to the company’s own strict code of conduct. The company’s auditors also look for risks of human trafficking, forced labor, and child labor
  • Victoria Road: Victoria Road’s fair trade workshop in Pakistan pays employees living wages and provides many benefits, from paid holidays and overtime to a bike purchasing program and gifts at Ramadan. The company sources from local ethical suppliers and it favors women entrepreneurs for its partners. Victoria Road has a zero-waste workshop policy and uses recycled or reused materials in its packaging. Some of its clothing would work in casual or business casual offices, and the site also offers bags, scarves, and jewelry.

Resources

  • The app Good on You (iPhone and Android) gives ethical brand ratings for 1,000+ fashion brands. (Note that you must create an account.)
  • You can see which companies are members of the Ethical Trade Initiative (and find out what that entails) on their website. A few examples are ASOS, Boden, Burberry, Gap, H&M, Hobbs, and Reiss. That’s not a guarantee that you can trust all of the companies’ clothing is ethically made, but at least you’ll know they’re working on it.
  • Fair Trade sites: Fair Trade USA, Fair Trade International, Fair Trade Federation. You can also search Nordstrom specifically for “fair trade” items (just don’t expect to find any workwear).

Is it important to you to buy fair trade clothing, chocolate, coffee, or other items? How much does it matter to you where and how the things you buy are made? 

Comments

  1. Anonymous :

    I feel like I should care more about ethically sourced clothing than I do. I’m quite obsessive about ethically sourced food, and I spend more money to buy locally made food and produce as much as possible, and actively seek it out.

    I think it’s just easier to do that with food, but with clothes, the source of the fabric, let alone the production of the clothes seems like such a black hole, and even if a company says X, it’s really hard to get actual assurances. So I could be spending more, and giving higher margins to just another company that acts the same as everyone else but has a better PR/greenwashing department.

    With food, I know the farmer and I’ve visited the farm, so my certainty level is pretty high that I’m supporting local farms.

    • NPR’s Planet Money did a whole series following how a cotton T-shirt was made, and traced its contents and production and shipping to countries all over the world. It can be way more complicated than just buying food from a farmer’s market!

  2. Moonstone :

    Thanks for putting the time into researching this, Kat and Kate.

  3. Meg Murry :

    Not sure if this has been mentioned in the previous posts in this series, but for a good look at why it is so complicated, the Planet Money podcast series on how they made their t-shirt is very enlightening. In their case, the cotton was from the US, then spun into yarn in Indonesia, then the yarn was turned into knit fabric in a different factory. In the case of the shirts, I believe they were turned into fabric, then sewed into shirts, and printed in the same factory – but for some companies, that could be 3 different factories, in 3 different countries. Add it where lining, buttons, thread, etc come from and it can get even more complicated.

    To read about the shirts: http://apps.npr.org/tshirt/#/title

    I will admit that at this point in my life, I am just trying to avoid overbuying, and buying too much cheap disposable clothing instead of ones that will last more than a season. Anything beyond that is more than I can handle at this point in my life. I am also trying to make a point to shop at locally owned brick and mortar stores when I can over buying everything online or from big box stores, in the hope of at least making a difference that way.

    • Meg Murry :

      And here is the link to the all the podcasts in the series. http://www.npr.org/series/248799434/planet-moneys-t-shirt-project

      I’ve worked in factories or manufacturing adjacent fields all of my career, so I wasn’t that surprised, but it was still interesting how deeply they delved into all the details as best they could.

  4. I always look at where and how clothes are made before I buy. Although I cannot say I buy 100% ethically or fair trade, I do think about it, and I definitely hesitate more before I buy something that isn’t fair trade, or made in the USA.

    Some favorites are Fair Indigo, which is certified by Fair Trade USA and GOTS (textile standard). They have casual shirts that I really like, and I recently bought two plain ponte dresses, one of which I dressed up with tights and a jacket cardigan and wore to work. Their customer service is great.

    I also buy from Patagonia, and they have supplier source tracing on their site. One of their suppliers was recently outed by PETA for inhumane treatment of sheep, and I received a personal e-mail response from Patagonia about my concern. I was disappointed, but they did react and they have since discontinued the supplier. I also like that you can recycle with their common threads program.

    prAna for workout wear also has a number of certifications and is transparent about their sourcing.

    I agree on Eileen Fisher, the company has a sustainability strategy that is both sensible and far reaching.

    It is very important to look for fair trade and ethically made things. For me, it’s about wanting the people who make the things I wear to earn a living wage, and I want to buy from companies that abide by a strong commitment to sustainability and environmental protection.

    How you spend your money is one of the greatest influences you have.

  5. Shopping challenged :

    Excellent topic. Thanks for the info!

  6. Pact Apparel is also fair trade certified: http://www.wearpact.com/

    I love their socks and t-shirts. Plus, they are affordable.

  7. Just bought a few items from Oak73. Their clothes are made in America. I bought 3 jackets and a blouse and like them all. https://www.oak73.com/

  8. Great list!

    I agree with the authors and other commenters that, while sourcing fair trade companies is a laudable step, it hardly scratches the surface of solving the ethical and environmental crimes of fashion.

    I believe that being more calculated in our purchasing decisions, resulting in buying a lot less items but buying clothes of higher quality that provide greater long-term satisfaction, is a more impactful step towards sustainability. I also believe this approach to wardrobe curation benefits one’s personal style!

    Lesley, workinglook.com

  9. I am so glad you are writing about these issues on Corporette! I care deeply about this, particularly after reading Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion. I find it really challenging to find work clothes that are made ethically, even for a business casual work environment. To add to that, I recently realized I should be wearing tall tops and dresses if I truly want to look my best.

    I second the praise for Fair Indigo. I bought a couple of turtleneck sweaters from them a few years ago that were very well made. I’ve also had a good experience buying online from what is now called Ash & Rose. They have excellent customer service. When I can’t find something ethically made, I try to buy less and focus on quality, hoping that I can help contribute to reducing waste at least.

    Ultimately, I think American clothing consumers need to demand from sellers that we get more transparency about the production process. I find it discouraging that most people I know seem to care only about price of an item, which is how we ended up in the last couple of decades with ever cheaper and more cheaply made clothing produced on the other side of the world by people treated inhumanely. By blogging about this, I think you are helping contribute to change. Please keep it up!

  10. Tuckerman & Co. makes stylish workwear that uses more sustainable materials. Our first product is an organic cotton men’s dress shirt made from Italian fabric and cut and sewn here in New England (each one saves nearly a full pound of pesticides from being used). You can check them out here: http://www.tuckerman.co/

  11. There’s a a new online boutique called Liberation Threads (http://www.liberationthreads.com) that provides a cute selection of ethically sourced clothing- some of which is appropriate for a work environment. Definitely worth checking them out.