2014-04-24

Co.Exist

Can This T-Shirt Make The Fashion Industry More Ethical?

Right now, FairWear is a simple gray T-shirt produced in Bangladesh. But it stands for a much larger struggle: good clothes, for good pay, in fair conditions.

If you traced your T-shirt drawer back to its supply chain, odds are you'd feel very uncomfortable with what you'd find: Thousands of women (and sometimes children) working from dawn to well into the night, sewing garments in creaky factories for $68 a month, and often less. Last year, those very circumstances culminated in one of the worst industrial disasters of the century. The Rana Plaza collapse killed more than 1,100 Bangladeshi garment workers producing clothes for brands like Walmart and Children's Place.

In the aftermath, a handful of brands appear to be taking their supply chains more seriously. But one new entrepreneur has an idea that could ease more brands into developing ethical production practices. It's strikingly simple: A $29 T-shirt labeled "FairWear."

Before he founded FairWear, Devin Chesney worked for the UN's World Food Program. But as attention began to wane from the conditions that spurred the Rana Plaza collapse, Chesney felt compelled to do something about the garment industry.

Rather than trying to coerce brands into changing up their entire production chains, Chesney wondered: What if change could be effected by consumers simply choosing to pay for one single, fairly produced item?

Right now, he's hoping consumers will demand his first FairWear offering, a simple, gray T-shirt made in conjunction with BRAC, a 30-year-old international NGO that was originally created to help lift Bangladeshis out of poverty. In Bangladesh, BRAC operates a network of fair trade handicraft producers for a set of shops called Aarong. If Chesney reaches 1,000 crowd-funded orders for a FairWear T-shirt, he'll have enough to start the production process. Through Aarong, FairWear will pay garment workers an additional 30% of their salaries, and send a dollar-per-item to the Rana Plaza victims' fund.

Some brands, like H&M, have already begun experimenting with fair living wage initiatives. But the difference between FairWear and those pilot programs is that FairWear would move through an existing channel. According to BRAC, brands' exclusive model factories for fair wage initiatives can often backfire.

"When strategies like this are used by large brands, what can happen is that if the brand kind of relinquishes the commitment on exclusively sourcing from the factory, then the factory goes into a lot of trouble," explains BRAC-Aarong's head of social compliance, Tanvir Hussain. "We've seen a lot of businesses collapse this way."

Chesney's aim is to scale up. One day, he hopes to launch a full FairWear line in an online marketplace, but have existing brands carry his clothes in the meantime.

Still, even a robust FairWear line wouldn't mean a comprehensive solution. If FairWear does succeed, it'd be a drop in the bucket. Political, social, and economic reforms throughout major garment producing countries would also have to lay the foundation for real reform.

Chesney acknowledges this. But to him, clothing brands shouldn't pay workers fair wages out of the goodness of their hearts. "When I’m approaching an existing clothing brand, I’m not asking you to give up profit because you have a warm fuzzy feeling in your heart about this," he says. "I’m asking you to do the responsible thing, to do what they should have been doing all along."

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