Recently, I came across the idea of microadventures, and I decided that 2015 would be full of them. To start this new hobby, two friends and I made a trek out to Fredericksburg, Virginia. It was a day full of fair trade, sustainability, and conscious consumerism. And it was beautiful.
Before even leaving the city, we decided we needed to stop for coffee. So, our day officially began with a little direct trade coffee from Bourbon Coffee. By working directly with Rwandan farmers and cooperatives, this wonderful coffee shop promotes sustainability, economic development, and cultural unity.
After our coffee stop, we ventured out toward Fredericksburg where we visited and toured Maranatha Alpaca Farm. Our time with the alpacas was so fun -- not only did we get to feed and pet them, but owner Perry Darley also taught us a lot about alpacas, their fibers, and what it's like to own such a farm. We were so impressed by Maranatha, not only because the alpacas were adorable, but also because the farm does quite a bit to support people in need, contributing to organizations like Quechua Benefit and Caritas Weaving Loft.
After meeting the alpacas, we spent a little bit of time in the Darleys' shop where they sell a variety of products made from alpaca fibers.
We eventually had to say goodbye to the alpaca farm, but on Perry's advice we ventured into downtown Fredericksburg for lunch at FoodE. This little restaurant serves fresh, organic, and sustainably-sourced food, much of which is grown and harvested locally.
After lunch, our next stop was a new fair trade store just down the street from FoodE called Latitudes.
And finally, before leaving Fredericksburg, we spent a little time wandering through some of the cute local shops. Our favorite by far was Riverby Books, an adorable used bookstore just across the street from Latitudes.
It may not have been the craziest adventure we could have chosen, but for our first microadventure of 2015, this day was pretty great. :)
So, I'm starting to like Twitter. I'm new to it, and often confused by it, but so far, I think I like it. I'm particularly fond of the fact that 2 out of 2 of my blog posts so far have been inspired by tweets. This little post was prompted by a question from Jesse Ayala, Creative Director and Co-Founder of Modavanti (check them out!!).
"How do we relate working conditions to customers and make impact more tangible?" he tweeted. Now, I doubt Mr. Ayala really wanted a page-long answer from me, but I feel like this is an issue that I've often pondered: How can we make people care? How can we make ethical fashion matter?
And so, because 140 characters wasn't enough, I decided to write a blog post in response to this topic. I really don't have a complete answer, but I do have an experience to share, and sometimes that's enough.
I often joke that my research has ruined my life. Pre-ethical-fashion-loving-Allie was all about latest trends and current styles. I spent my weekends working in retail, and I may have abused my discount privileges to the point of a shopping addiction. Life was great. Ignorance really was bliss.
But at some point, things changed. There was no exact moment that I started questioning my fashion habits, but over the course of a few months, a gradual shift took place. My anthropology major led me to studies of social justice and human rights, and along the way, I found myself living on the edge of justice, observing it but not taking part in creating it. I cared, but I didn't act.
As anthropology encouraged me to question "the normal," I began to consider my normal. Since fashion was one of the things I loved most, I eventually came around to evaluating my choices as a consumer. Through this process, I first learned about the world of ethical fashion. I thought it all seemed great, but knowing it existed wasn't enough to make me change my entire lifestyle. No, that came later. That came through a process of confronting the cruel realities of the fashion industry.
For some unknown reason, I chose to do my senior capstone on the topic of ethical fashion. The more I read, watched, heard, and learned about the fashion industry, the more disgusted I became. I won't go into all of the details here (you can go read the Facts pages for that), but ultimately, it wasn't the statistical research that changed the way I live. It was reading firsthand accounts of slavery and forced labor, seeing pictures of abused, tortured, dying animals, and listening to lectures about the devastating effects of extreme poverty that influenced me.
It all just broke my heart.
And I think that's where change takes place. We live in a society that provides countless distractions to escape the harsh realities of the world around us. It was only through confronting these realities, and allowing myself to be devastated by them, that I found the courage to make a change in my own life. It sounds horrible, but I really believe that in order to change the fashion industry, we need to break the hearts of consumers. I have enough faith in people to believe that if they really knew the truth, they'd want to make a difference too. Maybe that's naive, but it's a hope that, for my own emotional stability, I have to hold onto.
My capstone research project ultimately turned into this website, but before Ethically Beautiful was created, I had to make a choice. In the words of Katharine Hamnett, I had to ask myself, "Are you going to mindlessly go the easy way, or are you going to go the ethical way?" I'm far far far from perfect, but I feel like through choosing to go the ethical way, I'm at least moving the in the right direction.
The other day, I created this "blog" section of Ethically Beautiful. And after my first post, I was excited to jump in and write on something I care about. But then, I became overwhelmed. Ethical fashion is so big, and I'm passionate about so many parts of it, where would I start?
Fortunately, after a few days of procrastination, a starting point was handed to me in the form of a tweet: "@EthicallyBeaut Thanks for sharing this! Curious to hear your thoughts." After I retweeted an article on fair trade from Conscious Magazine, I received this response, and a thought popped into my head: "Hey. I care about fair trade. I could blog about that." Brilliant, right?
So, here it goes. Here are some of my thoughts on fair trade.
1. I like it.
I'm a fan. I'm a supporter. I'm an advocate. Now, before I jump into the why, I want to assure you that I've done a lot of research on this stuff, and I know that debates exist. Many scholars, economists, and entrepreneurs disagree on whether or not fair trade is actually good for those working in production. However, through my research, I've found one side to be more convincing than the other.
Here is what I understand about fair trade: It can signify a number of things, but broadly stated it is a trade model that prioritizes fair prices, fair labor conditions, direct trade, transparency, community development, and environmental sustainability. Through my studies, I have come to understand the ways in which fair trade practices affect the lives of those involved in commodity production chains around the world. I choose to buy fair trade products because I want to be involved in that process - I want to be a part of the change.
You may ask, "What changes are you talking about, Allie?" Well, there's lots of changes that need to take place within the fashion industry, but I think the most motivating factor for me is the issue of labor rights. My research has allowed me to learn things I would sometimes rather not know about the world -- it has opened my eyes to the not so pretty side of an industry that pushes beauty. It's hard to forget the feelings of horror you feel when reading firsthand testimonials of labor trafficking in Vietnam, sexual harassment in Mexico, and deadly working conditions in Bangladesh. All of these abuses, and so many more, occur in apparel and textile factories around the world, and I refuse to overlook them.
2. I believe I can make a difference.
There was once a time when I supported fair trade practices, but I didn't really do anything to show my support. I didn't think that my shopping habits could really have an impact on an industry so big and so powerful as fashion. But then, as I began my research on the power structures that influence the fashion industry, I came to find that much more power lies in the hands of the consumers than I had originally thought. In fact, the fashion industry is influenced by buyer-driven commodity chains, meaning that consumers have the power to influence production practices by selectively choosing where their money goes. How wonderful! Furthermore, I believe that such consumer activism not only sends a message of disapproval to companies employing unethical labor practices, but it also allows consumers to stand in solidarity with those who are suffering from labor abuses around the world.
3. I'm not oblivious.
While I'm clearly a supporter of fair trade, I do see the difficulties facing fair trade business models. I believe that there is much room for improvement, particularly in the way of a comprehensive definition (there is currently no universally agreed upon definition of what it means for something to be fair trade). Regardless, in my research, I haven't found one definition that I disagree with or oppose -- they're all basically the same. It's not as if one organization has designed a "fair trade certification" that is wholly unethical or against the generally acknowledged principles of fair trade (if you find one, let me know!).
All that being said, I do have a preferred definition. In 2001, a group of four of the largest international fair trade organizations came together to create an agreed upon definition. These groups made up FINE, which stands for the first letters of Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International (now Fairtrade International and FLO-CERT), the International Fair Trade Association (now the World Fair Trade Organization), the Network of European Workshops (now part of the WFTO), and the European Fair Trade Association. Together, FINE came up with the following definition and goals of fair trade:
Definition of Fair Trade:
Fair Trade is an alternative approach to conventional international trade. It is a trading partnership which aims for sustainable development of excluded and disadvantaged producers. It seeks to do this by providing better trading conditions, by awareness raising and by campaigning.
The goals of Fair Trade are:
1. To improve the livelihoods and well being of producers by improving market access, strengthening producer organizations, paying a better price and providing continuity in the trading relationship.
2. To promote development opportunities for disadvantaged producers,especially women and indigenous people, and to protect children from exploitation in the production process.
3. To raise awareness among consumers of the negative effects on producers of international trade so that they can exercise their purchasing power positively
4. To set an example of partnership in trade through dialogue, transparency and respect.
5. To campaign for changes in the rules and practice of conventional international trade.
Beyond the definition, I can see how some businesses might struggle with the idea of adopting fair trade practices into their business models. For a business to do so, changes would have to be made. Money would have to be spent. But, you know what? I think it's worth it. Call me crazy, but I think that profit is about about more than money -- there are more types of capital in the world than just economic capital. If you don't quite understand what I mean here, Louise Visser and Alice Jones present this idea perfectly in one of my favorite Ted Talks: One Thread at a Time.
4. It's OK if you don't agree with me.
It is perfectly fine for you to disagree with some of the things I've written here. I hope that you at least agree with some of it, but we can have different opinions on the finer details. That's alright. But please, don't try to talk me out of my love for fair trade and ethical fashion. I can't tell you how many friends, co-workers, people I care about have tried to convince me that "it's OK" for me to let go of these convictions. And it's not because they are "anti-human rights" or because they don't think fair trade "sounds like a good idea." No. The majority of these conversations have come from a place of worry on the part of my acquaintance. They don't want me to miss out, to go without, or to feel left out. They see the challenges that hunting down fair trade products can present, and they feel sorry for me.
Well, you know what? This is a message to all who worry or have worried for me: please don't. I love looking for fair trade products and discovering new ethical brands! Direct your pity, worry, compassion, or caring elsewhere. Honestly, I'm OK. I'm up to the challenge. I'm not worried, so you shouldn't be either.
And for those who say my actions won't make a difference, I have one response: we're going to have to agree to disagree. I know I can't change the world all on my own. I know that for every fair trade product I buy, so many more non-fair trade items are being purchased each day by other people (and believe it or not, I don't need you, concerned friend, to tell me about this). But despite these facts, I refuse to believe that the actions of the majority are always best. I refuse to believe that "the regular" is always right. I would rather not have that new top or those new earrings than succumb to a culture that places materialism over human rights and dignity. And besides, no change would ever occur if we all sat around thinking we couldn't do anything, right? So, I may not change the world, but I hope to change at least one life, opinion, thought, action... one something. I refuse to wait for the fashion industry to change itself. So, even if the process is slow, I'm going to be part of it.
So, I'm trying something new. I'm actually blogging.
I haven't done this before because I've tried to keep this site "academic" and focused on my research. However, as my love for ethical fashion has grown, so has my desire to share it. Research is important, but so are opinions and stories and personal experiences. So, I'm trying to incorporate these things into the layout of Ethically Beautiful. I don't know what I'll write about or how often I'll write, but to begin, I want to share my personal experiences with ethical fashion. I want others to read and see and feel and know why this stuff is important to me, and why I think it should be important to them too.