Many years ago, when I was younger, foolish and drank a lot more wine than I do today, I worked for charities. Mostly animal rights charities because that is my passion of choice, but I also worked for a short while at People & Planet, a student campaigning organisation that tackled human rights. During my time there, they were campaigning for Fairtrade school uniforms and visiting schools to raise awareness of the difference this could make in the world.
At the time, Fairtrade school uniforms weren’t too hard to come by. Tesco sold a whole Fairtrade uniform meaning parents could opt for ethical clothes easily whilst doing their weekly shop.I think Marks and Spencers also stocked some Fairtrade school uniform items. It certainly seemed like things were very slowly moving in the right direction. Fast forward five years, and now I’m charged with buying my daughter’s first school uniform. Aside from thinking it is ridiculous that a three year old should have to wear a uniform, this is actually quite traumatising because it highlights just how fast my baby is growing up. The thought of having to sew name tags into her school shirts gives me butterflies, not least because I am not a good seamstress.
From my time at People & Planet, I remember that the Tesco Fairtrade uniforms were priced the same as the unfairly traded ones (that might sound dramatic, but they are traded so unfairly). Why bother having the unfairly traded ones, you might ask? I have no idea. Probably because that extra 6p of profit (or whatever) was worth it in the eyes of a money hungry businessman (or maybe woman. Women can be dicks too).
As many as 100 million households across the world are thought to depend upon the cotton industry. Many of these people live in hardship. Our obsession with cheap clothes, fast changing fashions and high profit margins are forcing people into economic hardship. Often, cotton pickers and textile workers are not paid living wages, they face unsafe working conditions and are unable to unionise. The Fairtrade certification guarantees that workers are paid a living wage, and that extra money is invested into the community to provide important things like schools and birth centres. I’m not saying the Fairtrade certification is perfect, or that it solves all of the problems facing people working in the cotton supply chain, it doesn’t. But it is a damn sight better than what happens when you choose to buy unfairly traded cotton.
Whilst searching for an ethical uniform for Ebony, I discovered that none of the high street retailers stock Fairtrade uniforms. It is incredibly depressing to me that they have taken such a huge step backwards in the past five years. When I worked at People & Planet, most of the students I spoke to were passionate about having Fairtrade uniforms. They understood the huge difference this purchase could make to the people involved in the supply chain, and wanted to choose products that would have a positive impact on the world. And yet, big business simply isn’t catering for these students or their parents who want to choose ethical uniforms.
All of these big business will tell you that they stock ethically produced cotton. They’ll be signed up to a self-titled ethical policy, or they’ll be a member of some bullshit industry standard thing, but it’s not enough. If it’s run by the industry, it’s unlikely to have the supply chain workers’ best interests of heart. A sad truth about business is that profit tends to come first. The Fairtrade Foundation is independent. It has strict criteria so that workers are protected and supported. It aims to empower workers at all stages of the supply chain. The certification allows farmers to secure a better price for their goods and makes them less vulnerable to poverty. Workers are able to unionise, allowing them power to negotiate for improved working conditions. It is estimated that there are currently 168 million child labourers across the world, some as young as five. The Fairtrade Foundation has strict rules against child labour.
Knowing all of this, I wanted Ebony to have a Fairtrade school uniform. We don’t always buy Fairtrade, but we do try to as often as we can. Bananas, sugars and teas are always Fairtrade. And People Tree is always my first port of call when it comes to dress shopping. I was really disappointed to discover that none of the high street stores or supermarkets were selling Fairtrade uniforms this year, but managed to find some online. I’ve already bought Ebony’s polo shirts, they were only £2.50 each and are Fairtrade. They’re by David Luke and you can (and should) buy them here. I know price is an important factor when it comes to uniform shopping, but £2.50 a shirt isn’t much more than £2.50 a pair (this seems to be standard supermarket pricing) and when you consider the difference it makes to the people who make the clothes, I think it’s worth it.
If you know of any other suppliers of Fairtrade school uniforms, let me know. I still have to buy a cardigan, skirt and trousers. If you agree that Fairtrade uniform should be more readily available, please contact the supermarkets and high street stores to ask why they’re not stocking them. I tweeted a number of them last week and was told me interest would be passed on, so the more voices the better.