Fair Trade—we’ve all heard of it, and we all agree it sounds like a good thing. But beyond paying fair wages for goods manufactured ethically, what exactly does it mean and how does it happen? We went behind the label with Sam Kuchmak, MEC‘s Social Compliance Manager.
—by Ned Morgan
ML: MEC pays a premium on each Fair Trade Certified garment—how does the program make economic sense? Do you see it as an investment in global sustainability?
Sam Kuchmak: Before each season, our Buying and Design teams sit down to discuss concepts for the coming seasons. Fair Trade Product assortment is discussed, taking into consideration the cost implication as MEC pays the Fair Trade Premium on every unit—MEC members will never pay the additional cost.
During the costing discussions for all products, Fair Trade or not, a product must meet margin requirements. Prior to certification, Fair Trade USA conducts an assessment of the factory and numerous other local, regional and country-specific indicators to determine the premium amount for each factory. Across Fair Trade USA’s factory portfolio, premiums range between 1% and 10% of Freight on Board (the price of the product when it leaves the factory).
This premium, paid on top of the price of the product, goes directly into a worker-managed bank account. Workers vote on how to use this money to address their most important needs, for example, providing women’s health services or scholarships for children of workers. At Pratibha Syntex in India, workers voted to purchase raincoats. Previously, factory workers would arrive rain soaked from their walk to work. They’d spend the whole day in wet clothes, which poses numerous health and safety risks.
We started small with just two t-shirt styles in order to test the waters with our members and internal staff. Through internal collaboration and agreement, we’ve now moved to 32 MEC-labeled Fair Trade styles in spring 2016. The Fair Trade collection at MEC now includes beautifully simple dresses, pants, shorts and jackets, all tested to ensure they meet our strict quality standards. Like all the cotton we carry at MEC, our cotton used for Fair Trade products is organic.
Sure, we do pay more for the product, but integrity, cooperation and humanity are embedded into our values; it’s what guides MEC.
ML: MEC is increasing its investment in the Fair Trade Certified program: Is this a result of demand from MEC members? Or is the Fair Trade program more of a philosophical stance on the part of MEC?
SK: We have increased our styles and will continue to do so. Our strategy is to work on a country by country basis alongside the Fair Trade USA program. We started at one facility in India that was already Fair Trade Certified. The following year, we worked with our other facility-partner—Penguin Apparels in India and the Fair Trade USA team—to gain their certification. Now that all of our facility-partners in India are working with the Fair Trade program, we’re expanding our efforts in Thailand in 2016.
When we started with Fair Trade, we did so not in response to member demand, but rather with a goal to educate our members on benefits of the Fair Trade program. We believe that the certification program is aligned with our values and what our members expect from us.
We’re just beginning to monitor MEC member feedback as we expand our Fair Trade Certified product line, but initial reception has been positive. We started collaborating with Fair Trade USA in 2014 on two of our popular, long running collections (100% organic cotton t-shirts) made by apparel workers in India. MEC selected our organic cotton t-shirts as our initial Fair Trade Certified products because they were already in high demand, and adding the certification provided additional value to our members.
ML: The Pratibha Syntex factory produces Fair Trade Certified items—does this mean the other factories producing MEC items are less fair?
SK: No, it does not. Under MEC’s Responsible Sourcing Program, we are always seeking areas where we can move beyond just auditing. Fair Trade certification strengthens MEC’s efforts to work with our facility-partners to further improve conditions. Beyond MEC’s own social responsibility activities, Fair Trade USA will itself monitor and audit the factory against the Fair Trade standards to drive additional improvements. They also provide training to factory management and workers to address occupational health and safety issues, and workers learn about their employment rights, workplace communications and opportunities for spending the additional Fair Trade premiums.
MEC’s entry into Fair Trade certification supports our responsible sourcing efforts. We monitor our suppliers to ensure they meet MEC’s Code of Conduct and we work with them to make necessary improvements. Our main focus is always to ensure that workers who make MEC-labeled products are being paid properly, that their rights are respected, and that factory conditions are safe.
MEC’s approach is to know our suppliers and to build strong relationships with factory management. We want factory owners to know the value we place on transparency and that we will work with them to find a solution.
More about MEC’s Fair Trade program and apparel line here.