Beginner’s Guide to Fair Trade

fair trade organization is a collaboration between fashion brands and artisan cooperatives

“Fair trade.”

You’ve heard the term, often in the context of a commodity like coffee, chocolate, or bananas. Or, you’ve seen us mention it - Mata Traders is a fair trade fashion brand.

But, do you know what it really means

October is Fair Trade Month

For the next 31 days, the world celebrates a system that cares about people, putting producers before profits and valuing greater equity in the supply chain above all else. We put together this quick guide to brief you on fair trade practices, organizations, and what it all means to us, a company proud to be in the ethical fashion industry for over a decade. It’s a little text-heavy, so bear with us! We want you to have all the info. 

Fair trade fashion brand and artisan cooperatives collaborate

The Meaning of “Fair Trade”

Fair trade is a trading system that values equity, especially gender equity, and was created to better support marginalized communities who have little or no market access: small scale farmers and craftspeople whose livelihoods are challenged by the global system. It’s business for good. Business as a way to create a stable income for those who need it.

The current model of international trade prioritizes profit above all else. Often trapped by fixed costs like materials and transportation, companies drive down labor costs to increase margins and generate returns for shareholders. Simply put, this means workers are squeezed, pushed to their limits for lower wages. Profits come first.

At its core, fair trade rejects this traditional model by putting the needs of the producer first.


How do you know a company is fair trade?

There are some trade associations and fair trade networks that have a rigorous application and evaluation process in order to be verified as a fair trade business. We are longstanding members of one such organization, the Fair Trade Federation, an association for U.S. and Canadian businesses that requires each and every business decision to be made with the well-being of artisans and farmers in mind. Businesses in the FTF are committed to practicing 9 Principles of Fair Trade, which are established to create better equity in global trading partnerships, so that everyone is able to benefit and prosper. We’ll tell you a little bit about those in our next post. 

A fair trade certification is often applied to commodities and agricultural products where a third party certifier tracks material along the supply chain from the farm to the processing to the product. Most products will have a label indicating their certification or membership to a fair trade organization.


How does a fair trade fashion brand work with artisans?

Our business model is to source our production with suppliers that practice fair trade and are doing amazing work to provide opportunity within marginalized communities. They’re making an impact on poverty for the next generation, and we work with them as long-term trading partners. We are not a charity, and we also don’t run the day-to-day of our producer partners: they are not “ours.” They are businesses, just like us, and while our commitment to fair trade means our relationship is a bit more interconnected than is typical, we are not the only company who works with each organization. 

As for the production process, it’s pretty straightforward: we create the designs, working within the groups’ skills and capabilities, and they produce our apparel and jewelry. It of course isn’t as simple as just that – troubleshooting occurs on both sides to fix printing or stitching issues, sometimes designs must be reworked, or details added or removed. It’s a delicate balance to find a solution that works and grows their business along with ours – ultimately we want the producers to develop skills and be satisfied with their work, and we want a product that consumers will LOVE, so the process can continue and compound with each collection. 

One of the biggest differences with fair trade production is that it’s unusual to see factory-style production lines. Instead, one woman sews an entire garment, not for efficiency's sake but because the producer comes first. This way scheduling, meeting quotas, or working a little slower doesn’t matter.


Happy Fair Trade Month!

Our next post will dive into the Principles of Fair Trade, nine components of a fair trade business to which we have committed, as members of the Fair Trade Federation. Stay tuned!