The Fashion Trap: Why Fairtrade Works in Coffee but not in Clothing

By Stephan Manning.

The recent collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh was devastating. Over 400 mostly young female workers died; over a hundred are still missing. An ‘accident’ that would be unthinkable in the U.S. or Western Europe. Prior concerns about the building conditions (including a large crack) had been ignored – by the owner, by government officials and global buyers. Whether or not clients, such as Benetton, Cato Fashions, Primark, Mango and Joe Fresh, actually knew about the situation is not important. The fact however that they did not make sure – even after a series of recent fires with hundreds of casualties in similar factories, such as the Tazreen factory – that basic safety standards many of us take for granted are met and followed up on is revealing. After decades of protest and campaigns by ILO and international NGOs, such as the Clean Clothes Campaign, it seems that the global fashion industry has not even managed to secure very basic health and safety conditions for garment workers in major producing countries.

This frustrating fact becomes even more disturbing when comparing apparel to other so-called ‘commodity’ industries, such as coffee. When the first activists raised concerns about labor conditions in the global coffee industry in the 1970s and 80s, farmers were facing health and safety risks quite similar to garment workers. But since then things have changed a bit. The percentage of coffee certified by one or several sustainability standards, such as Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance, or Utz Certified, all of which at least impose and regularly check health and safety standards, has increased rapidly in recent years (see related article). Major consuming countries, such as UK and Netherlands, already import a large percentage of their coffee beans – UK: 20% (2009), Netherlands: 38% (2010) – from certified farms. Premium brands, such as Starbucks, and many local high-quality roasters cannot even afford any more not to demonstrate their commitment to the environment, and their concerns with farmers’ health, safety and well-being. In 2010, 87% of Starbucks coffee was certified. In 2015, it will be 100%.

So why is it that certification seems to work in coffee, but not in clothing? Why is it that sustainability standards in coffee look way beyond health and safety issues, whereas the Clean Clothes Campaign and their partner organizations struggle to get major fashion brands to sign very basic agreements, such as the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement which would promote independent inspections of supplier factories, public reporting, training and mandatory repairs and renovations?

One key to understand this challenge is what I call the fashion trap. Despite the enduring effort of large NGOs and certification bodies, one major driving force of improved labor and environmental conditions – based on private certification – remains the awareness and behavior of consumers. It takes lead consumers who are not only aware of the social impact of their purchasing decisions but who actually buy products regularly that are sourced from certified production facilities.

But here comes the problem: for certified products to succeed, their social, aesthetic and market value need to be in tune. By social value I mean the level at which labor, social and environmental standards are met in the production process; aesthetic value is the degree to which a product matches the taste of (socially conscious) lead consumers; market value is the price those consumers are willing to pay.

Now let’s look at coffee first. One reason for the recent success of Fairtrade – and ‘fairly traded’ coffee in general – has been its ability to penetrate the premium coffee market. Since 2010, Starbucks has served 100% Fairtrade certified Lattes and Cappuccinos all across Europe. This means that all imported Starbucks espresso beans are sourced from farmers who enjoy high health and safety standards, a premium price paid by buyers, and high environmental standards. Similarly, many high-end local roasters boast responsible and sustainable approaches to sourcing. This has worked out because (1) lead coffee consumers in Europe – and increasingly in the U.S. – are willing to pay a higher price (market value) not just for high quality but for the overall coffee experience (aesthetic value), and because (2) the trend of coffee being sourced responsibly and sustainably (social value) has added to the aesthetic experience of lead consumers. In other words, it’s trendy to drink coffee responsibly. Even young hipsters – and trend setters – in New York, who can barely pay their rents, regularly enjoy their sustainably sourced Latte for $4 or more in their favorite local coffee shop.

This does not work so well in apparel. Whereas the above mentioned New York hipster might not think twice about purchasing an espresso drink every day, he or she might not be willing to pay much for fashion – be it vintage apparel or new items. This is because, (1) the market price of apparel does not reflect its aesthetic value, which depends a lot on how it combines with other items, individual style, fashion cycles, and peer preference. This already reduces the chance that lead consumers will regularly buy clothes with high social value (which might cost more because of the expenses involved in ensuring safety and paying workers decent wages). (2) Unlike the café latte which consumers might enjoy while looking at a poster of happy coffee farmers, the aesthetic value of a piece of clothing is quite unrelated to the purchasing experience (except maybe for vintage clothing). It’s all about appearance outside of a shop – whether or not clothes are certified does not really matter, it’s not visible. This means that even if consumers happen to buy clothes in a store known for responsible sourcing, the chances that they will regularly do so – just because items are certified – are relatively small. In addition, variety-seeking plays a much greater role in buying clothes than in coffee consumption.

Therefore, unlike in coffee, in apparel there is no natural market for certified products. Thus, there will be no lasting consumer pressure on fashion labels to source responsibly. It seems that the only way that labor conditions in Bangladesh and other producing countries can be improved is through national and international regulation and a concerted effort of major consuming countries to enforce effective implementation. Whereas in coffee, demand-driven private regulation has gradually replaced the need for government regulation, in apparel the continuous failure of private regulation – as evidenced by the recent events in Bangladesh – should be a wake-up call.

Let’s face it: Fashion consumers (and retailers) might never change their behavior, but governments can and should. Helping producing countries to fight corruption, promote the formation of trade unions and enforce existing legislation might be a first step. Using development agencies as intermediaries might help as well. Getting fashion labels and retailers to apply additional pressure might have an effect – but only in conjunction with government efforts. Enough people have died already because of sloppy safety regulations. Let’s make sure they did not die in vain.


Clean Clothes Campaign (accepting donations)

CCC Article: “’Stop the killing, act now’ Clean Clothes Campaign urges brands to sign Safety Agreements” (April 29 2013)

Manning, Stephan: “Imagine your office building just collapsed… Imagine garment workers in Bangladesh could take safety for granted” (April 29 2013)

Prashad, Vijay: “Bangladeshi workers need more than boycotts” (The Guardian, Tuesday April 30 2013)

TCC Coffee Barometer 2012: Adoption of Sustainability Standards Across Countries and Roasters

Reinecke, J., Manning, S., Von Hagen, O. 2012 “The Emergence of a Standards Market: Multiplicity of Sustainability Standards in the Global Coffee Industry”. Organization Studies, 33 (5/6), 789-812.

Related posts “When it comes to ethics, why do consumers care more about coffee than clothes?” (May 10 2013)


21 thoughts on “The Fashion Trap: Why Fairtrade Works in Coffee but not in Clothing

  1. My dad (who had a job as a jeweller ) said

    “You should regularly clean your Danon Bangles. You should not let it get black or gray. A cheap, and simple, way to effectively clean your jewellery is to brush your pieces just like you would your own teeth. Just put a bit of toothpaste onto a dry cloth and rub. Clean in no time.”

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  7. It will be interesting to see what the response to garment factory disaster by the fashion industry will be, in regards to the long-term effects in Bangladesh. I know some, like Sweden’s H&M, have signed onto a new safety plan for workers in Bangladesh. But perhaps an even greater total will announce plans to relocate, like Disney did recently. Are they moving because they want to work with countries with more progressive public health and safety records, or are they simply moving because of the negative publicity created by this tragic event and plan to look for the next available country with similar substandard conditions?

    It’s interesting that the extent to which a brand in the fashion industry may minimize the extent to which they work to ensure they only purchase clothing manufactured in countries that provide basic human rights and safety. Levi Straus implemented ethical principles into their global sourcing strategy in the early 1980’s, and subsequently ending contracts in Burma and China for the very same reasons we see companies leaving Bangladesh today. Yet I’ve never seen an advertisement from Levi’s that promotes this. On a more personal note, I recently purchased a pair of socks from When the socks arrived, the packaging boldly stated that the socks were created solely from the use of wind power and promoted sustainability, yet this was nowhere to be found on the website.

  8. Z consumer do care for coffee than clothes b/c in many countries z people take and use coffe more than their life they life. So even coffe is used as food in Ethiopia. As we know z basic necessity of human being is food cloth and shelter, above all this the people prefer coffe as essential means in their life!
    Have a good day!

    • Indeed , people have “priorities” that are unnecessary and are luxury items , which they view as essentials . Its the mindset ..

      • The choices that people make to purchase clothing , is influenced by the price , and due in my opinion to the decrease in the economic “living wage”, in the United kngdom we have the minumim wage , istead of a “living wage”, the choices to purchase clothing that is in expensive is influenced by this . However this cycle of the impace that demand has upon others in the international community , needs to be considered , before purchasing these garmets,
        There are other choices , and I prefer to purchase a item , where i checkthe label and ask questions in the store , Even if it is more expensive , thats fine as long as it is ethical .
        We can also purchase “PRE LOVED” items , Many of which are not made in sweat shops and recycling also assists the planet . The fashion industry and the demands to have eveything new , and then worn once , and throw away , is NOT SUSTAINABLE … Best wishes to all Cate Tuitt

    • In the UK , we have organised to ensure that these practices are ceased. We set up a petition and if you would like to support us , check out these weblinks; http:/ Thus far there has been many thousands who have joined , there is details of our campaign upon these links, WAR ON WANT …Thankyou Best wishes Cate Tuitt

  9. As events unfold, apparently governments and industry players are now considering more serious and urgent measures to prevent events, such as the factory collapse in Bangladesh, from happening in the future. (See e.g. Reuters:; Bloomberg article by Jeff Green: But why does it take a thousand deaths to take action? Why didn’t the fire in Dhaka last November, which killed 112 workers, result in any substantial response? Well maybe because (as the above cited Bloomberg article suggests) the fire didn’t force any insurance companies to pay out anyone – which in 1911 was one driving force of better safety protection in the U.S. after 146 got killed by the Triangle fire. But maybe we are lucky and some day one of the witnesses of the two catastrophes in Bangladesh will somehow end up taking a role in a future Bangladesh government and help push through more fundamental reforms… This is what happened in 1933 when Frances Perkins (one witness of the Triangle fire) became Labor secretary in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s government which gave an important push to Roosevelt’s reforms, including labor laws Americans take for granted today. But maybe we shouldn’t wait that long for such a thing to happen! We don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Existing standards just need to be enforced. And it shouldn’t take any more dead worker to accomplish what should have been done years ago.

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  11. Food crops should not be for fuels of gas guzziling cars , it should be for hungry people …
    there is also evidence that bio fuels are not environmentally friendly as originally hyped .. also I have concerns about Land grabbing !!
    In Ghana and other parts of Africa , grabbing land that was owned for centuries by families , and exploiting them by taking it to plant bio fuels and giving them a pittance , if any money at all . Check out the action aid empirical research upon these matters, I am not just stating andedotal evidence. Best wishes Cate Tuitt

  12. Thanks for your thoughtful comment Werner. Of course the market for cheap coffee and cheap clothing will probably never go away. But the question is: Is there a market at all for possibly higher-priced, responsibly sourced, hip clothing vs. coffee? And how much traction will this market generate to also transform the mainstream? Today, even Dunkin’ Donuts is 100% Fairtrade certified for Espresso, Latte and Cappuccino, McDonald’s coffee is getting there as well. And again: health and safety standards are BASIC components of any sustainability standard today. But how about clothing? The problem is that only because you pay a lot for clothing – and certainly many people do – this might not help any garment worker. High price is not correlated with making sure that garment workers enjoy health and safety standards. In coffee, however, it is. In the near future, you will barely find a premium coffee brand or retailer who is NOT certified. In clothing, we might never get there. And this is partly because people who pay a lot for clothing are not necessarily highly educated and/or socially aware, whereas people who pay a lot for coffee – in particular in cafes – tend to be educated (about taste, the environment, social conditions). I predict that there is no correlation between the willingness to pay a lot for clothing and the willingness to pay a lot for coffee. The former has to do entirely with your budget, the latter has to do with taste, appreciation of quality and education. In turn, you can show off with your fancy clothes, but not so much with your coffee. The latter is consumed right away. In a way it’s ironic: the immediate satisfaction consumers get from drinking their sustainably sourced premium latte for a few cents more saves producers long-term health and safety; the almost infinite hunger for status and prestige, and consumers’ willingness to pay ridiculous amounts of money for clothing does not change anything for producers…. We might need to accept this reality. Instead of mobilizing consumers we need to mobilize governments to make changes happen.

    • The consumption you refer to may be a sign of Kenysion economic , in times of recesions , economic output and aggregate demand and Kenyes also spoke of the erraticness of the behaviour during these times and the productive capacity of the economy affecting production.

      I read your comments and thought of his theories… clothes manufactoring are no exception to this .. what do you think of that? , lets share thoughts .. Thankyou and best wishes Cate Tuitt

      PS – I purchase clothes from charity shops as well as local churches and mosques who have “PRE LOVED” items at wonderful rates and they are not made in sweat shops , they are ethical as they are checked by the faith groups before sale , the labels . You also dont have to be religious to do this , although I am , but you are also saving the environment as its recycling items … Cotton picking is also horrendus labour and if one can recycle clothing then we should do as much as possible … Some of the items in the facotries that had staff burned to death , where destined for London , where I reside … For those inexpensive clothing stores … there are choices for consumers and we all need to not IMPULSE buy … we must think , before we buy any items … Do we really need that !!

  13. Hi Stephan, I really like your piece here and it raise the awareness about a very recent topic. But I don’t agree in total with the positive (i.e. success of fair trade coffee) and negative conclusion (i.e. no hope for the fashion industrie) of the blog entry.

    Fair trade coffee is a great achievement and it shows that with enough education and awareness campaigns you can get people to pay 50% or 100% higher prices for package of coffee (in comparison to the cheapest option) in industrial countries. This only works if consumers believe that the product has what you called social (i.e. regulations are fulfilled by the producer) and aesthetic values (i.e. it is hip to buy something like that) and the disposable income exist. But this doesn’t mean that the majority of coffee production is now fair trade. Not by fare and the problem of oppression still exist.

    Fashion is not so different. You can also educate people in the western world that all their great and hip fashion labels are produced by children and under very miserable conditions. In the western world people have a high willingness to pay for fashion (far beyond the production cost) for some “luxury” labels. Similar like in coffee you can generate a pull from the consumer side to expect “clean” production for their hip labels. This will not solve the problem in case you are looking for the cheapest deal. But is is a very interesting step in the right direction.

    Regulation is nice to ask for, but I doubt the administrations in these countries are strong enough to execute them. Educating the customers helps more efficiently (till we find the next ethical trap in our consumption world, e.g. nice a shiny high tech products, mass organic food production, mass bio fuel production etc.)

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