Clothes with a conscience

We are hearing all about fairly-sourced food and drink during Fairtrade Fortnight - but how do you know that your new t-shirt hasn't come from a sweatshop employing nine-year-old children for 15 hours a day? PAUL GEATER hunts the high street for clothes with a conscience.

By Paul Geater

We are hearing all about fairly-sourced food and drink during Fairtrade Fortnight - but how do you know that your new t-shirt hasn't come from a sweatshop employing nine-year-old children for 15 hours a day? PAUL GEATER hunts the high street for clothes with a conscience.

YOU can now drink Fairtrade tea or coffee sweetened with Fairtrade sugar alongside a piece of Fairtrade cake - or a Fairtrade banana if you're feeling more healthy.

You can even eat a Fairtrade chocolate bar which will do farmers in Africa good, even if it isn't good for your waistline! Fairtrade is a concept that has attracted a great deal of interest over recent months - but buying clothes can be more of a moral maze.

If you buy relatively cheap clothes which say 'made in India' on the label for example, there is always the nagging fear that the clothes could have been made by children suffering in sweatshops. It is possible to buy Fairtrade clothes, but there are very few around and until now they have not been available from most mainstream stores.

In an attempt to ease that fear and ensure that clothes are made in factories which have at least minimum welfare standards, the government, retailers, and non-governmental organisations including Oxfam and the Fairtrade Foundation, have come together to form the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI).

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Members include some of the biggest names on the high street. And while membership does not ensure that all workers are treated to western conditions, it does indicate to consumers that they take conditions at their suppliers' seriously.

Julia Hawkins from the ETI said: “This scheme is not the same as Fairtrade in that it doesn't necessarily mean that a certain proportion of the price you pay goes direct to the producer.

“But it does ensure that the suppliers look at how their stock reaches the shelves. They are looking for businesses which meet the minimum level of conditions laid down by the International Labour Organisation.

“That includes maximum hours of work, minimum ages for workers, reasonable wages and the right to join trade unions.

“In some circumstances factories might not meet all those conditions - but if they show they are moving in that direction they could still be all right so far as the ETI is concerned.”

One of the biggest chains to have signed up to the ETI is Marks and Spencer, which has is also pushing its Fairtrade credentials.

It is selling much Fairtrade food and is also starting to sell garments made from Fairtrade cotton.

And a spokeswoman for the company said its commitment to the ETI was very important: “Our customers are very keen to know that their clothes are not made in sweatshops,” she said.

“We know the source of all our products - we only sell our own brand goods so we can keep very close tabs on how they are produced.

“And being members of the ETI is quite a commitment - you have to check on your suppliers. It isn't something you can just pay to join without taking steps to ensure workers are treated properly.”

As a general rule one of the most important things to look at when buying a garment was where it was produced.

If a company says which country it was made in, then it showed they knew the supply route it had come along before hitting their shelves.

“All our garments say where they were made because we know how they arrived with us,” said the Marks and Spencer spokeswoman.

Sue Young helped launch the church in Suffolk as a Fairtrade Diocese last year and has been at the forefront of the church's battle to make trade more just. She welcomed the ETI message - and urged people to look for Fairtrade clothes where possible.

Ms Young said: “Many more Fairtrade goods are coming on to the market and clothes look like being the next big issue.

“It probably won't have as much of a direct impact on the diocese - we get through a lot of tea and coffee and not so many clothes - but it is any important message to get across.”

Suffolk charity Merchants of India, as featured in the Evening Star, is also providing work and education for people in Indian slums by selling evening and occasion wear across Suffolk.

Weblinks: www.ethicaltrade.org includes a full list of all retailers who have signed up.

www.fairtrade.org.uk Fairtrade Foundation.

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How is ethical trading important to you? Write to Your Letters, Evening Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN or e-mail eveningstarletters@eveningstar.co.uk

Asda.

Body Shop

Boots.

Co-op.

Debenhams.

Gap.

Marks and Spencer.

Monsoon.

Mothercare.

New Look.

Next.

Sainsburys.

Somerfield.

Tesco.

WH Smith.