If I had to rank them by order of difficulty, I’d probably say that buying a wedding dress was one of the more stressful wedding-related tasks. I mean, take the the traditional wedding planning challenges (budget, timing, etc.), add in body image and boobs and the pressure to find the dress, and it’s a wonder I showed up to our wedding wearing anything at all. While I try to make conscious purchasing decisions in my daily life whenever possible (which is a whole other conversation for another time), when it came to our wedding, I just didn’t have the bandwidth to consider the impact of our decisions, particularly when it came to the already fraught process of choosing attire. And honestly, at the time, there weren’t a whole lot of easy resources to turn to.
These days, it’s much easier, and possibly even affordable, to integrate responsible choices into wedding planning process. But wedding dress shopping often remains under a shroud of mystery (are they all actually made in the same factory?). So, today we asked APW sponsor and Fair Trade wedding dress maker Celia Grace for the lowdown on how to shop consciously when looking for a wedding dress.
A before we jump in: we understand that not everyone has the means or opportunity to shop Fair Trade for their wedding. We get that (we really do: my own dress came from a big box store). So the following is not a diatribe, by any means. But if it gets you thinking about these issues, maybe even for the first time, then we’re counting that as a win. Because shopping more ethically is a process; not a gold star event. And with that, let’s kick to Celia Grace:
FAIR TRADE 101
APW: Let’s start with the basics. What is Fair Trade?
CELIA GRACE: Fair Trade is a global social movement to end poverty by giving consumers the ability to vote with their dollars for the kind of world we all want: one where we protect the environment, people are paid a living wage for working in safe and fair conditions, and we can break the cycle of poverty.
Fair Trade products are made in developing countries and sold in developed ones. Unlike conventional international trade—which maximizes profit for a company and its shareholders—Fair Trade is an alternate economic model designed to leverage international trade to do good for more broadly defined stakeholders like workers, consumers, and the environment.
Some key players in the world of Fair Trade are the Fair Trade Federation (the trade association for Fair Trade in the US), Fair Trade USA (a Fair Trade certifying organization), and FairTrade International (the European organization for Fair Trade). As the Fair Trade Federation Explains, “Fair Trade is an approach to business and development based on dialogue, transparency, and respect that seeks to create greater equity in the international trading system.”
While many people are familiar with Fair Trade coffee or chocolate—where farmers are paid a fair price for their coffee or cacoa beans—Fair Trade clothing is a bit more confusing. That said, the concept is just the same: using international business and trade—rather than aid—to help people better themselves in developing countries.
THE CLOTHING INDUSTRY, AS IT WERE
APW: What are some of the problems in the clothing industry? I’m aware that there are many issues with the working conditions in the factories that make a lot of our clothing. But does it go further than that?
CG: Most problems in the clothing industry fall into two categories: environmental degradation and poor treatment of workers. Unfortunately, new clothing does a number on the environment. Most wedding dresses are made from polyester (which is made from petroleum, which can be very energy-intensive and polluting to extract and turn into fabric). In addition, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, the process of dyeing and finishing one ton of fabric can pollute up to fifty thousand gallons of fresh water. Ouch.
Social problems in the clothing industry include unhealthy and unsafe work conditions, child labor, forced labor, and extremely long work hours and low wages. The Rana Plaza clothing factory collapse which killed over a thousand people in Bangladesh three years ago has been the most visible recent reminder of how bad work conditions can be. Children as young as thirteen were working there.
While researchers believe child labor has dropped significantly in recent years, the US Department of Labor believes that child and/or forced labor in clothing making continues in at least nine countries (Argentina, Bangladesh, Brazil, China, India, Jordan, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam). Clothing with beading and that billed as “Fast Fashion” are two red flags for child labor. Author Lucy Siegle explains, “Beading and sequinning represents a weak part in the supply chain with reference to child labor because it is unregulated and predominantly uses homeworkers. So there will be a great propensity to use children in households to complete orders.”
Pollution-spewing textile plants, collapsing factories, and child/forced labor are the worst-case scenarios in the clothing industry. Not all clothing is made that way. Conditions in conventional clothing production range from excellent to good to fair to poor to disastrous. The problem is that it is impossible for a shopper to know which clothing is made in good conditions or bad conditions just by looking at a clothing label.
WHAT CAN WE DO?
APW: I feel like this is where I often get stuck. I know that clothing manufacturing has big, big problems associated with it. But… what do I do next? Do you have a good starting place for people who are trying to shop more ethically?
CG: There is a lot of buzz right now about jobs and we all know how important they are here in the US. I love the fact that Made in the USA clothing (including wedding dresses) is slowly making a comeback. But for now, with ninety-eight percent of clothing worn in the US made elsewhere, improving work conditions abroad is key.
Fortunately there are some great resources (like The Good Guide—which is kind of like Consumer Reports for ethical products) that can help consumers make better choices when they buy clothing or other products. If you want a great visual for the clothing supply chain check out Patagonia’s The Clothing Chronicles, a remarkably transparent view of a company continually examining and improving its supply chain.
APW: Besides Patagonia, do you have recommendations for other Fair Trade clothing manufacturers that you recommend?
CG: If you just want to browse, Green America has a big list of where to find Fair Trade products, including clothing. Otherwise, my personal recommendations include (with a focus on US-based companies):
- Helpsy: Fashion forward yet ethical beauty products, clothing, and home goods
- Mata Traders: Trendy (in a good way) Fair Trade clothing
- Shop Ethica: Curated selection of small designers that focus on local or “trade not aid” products
- Indigenous: Organic and Fair Trade clothing with a more classic look
- Global Mammas: Fun and colorful pieces for adults and children from an amazing organization
- Fair Indigo: Great basics and more
- Novica: Sweaters and more from the National Geographic store
- Maggie’s Organics: Socks and more made in the USA or Fair Trade
FAIR TRADE WEDDING DRESSES
APW: How about wedding dress, specifically? How can someone who wants a Fair Trade dress go about making it happen?
CG: A Fair Trade wedding dress means no child labor and no forced labor. It means healthy and safe work conditions free of harassment and dangerous equipment or materials. It ensures a fair wage and reasonable working hours. It means equal pay for men and women and non-discrimination. In some ways that is very simply one seamstress making one dress.
But Fair Trade goes deeper than just individual worker protections. While many conventional clothing factories jump from country to country chasing low wages and creating a “race to the bottom” for workers, Fair Trade clothing companies build long-term relationships with producer partners. This means that a Fair Trade wedding dress ensures a long-term job with dignity and respect where seamstresses continually build their skills.
A Fair Trade wedding dress, like Fair Trade clothing in general, strives to be eco-friendly. Lots of Fair Trade clothing is made from organic cotton but for a wedding dress, you will probably want silk. Some Fair Trade wedding dresses are made from handmade eco silk which is woven on a traditional wooden loom with no electricity, no dangerous chemicals, and uses very little water. When handmade fabrics aren’t available, other natural fibers (like silk and cotton) are used.
Finally, a lesser-known but really neat aspect of Fair Trade is that it encourages companies to find ways to help celebrate and preserve cultural heritage. Heirloom silks that are hand woven the same way they’ve been made for generations upon are one example of this. In Cambodia, the cultural art form of silk weaving was almost lost in the genocide of the 1970s. A few grandmothers remembered how to string a loom and weave silk and are teaching their daughters again. Fair Trade wedding dresses that use this silk are helping to preserve this beautiful cultural art form.
Safe, empowering employment is vital in poor counties with limited social safety nets. And when women work, all sorts of positive outcomes arise. According to the International Center for Research on Women, “When women earn an income, they are more likely than men to spend it on food, education, and health care for their children and families [and it can be] empowering: it boosts women’s self-esteem and bargaining power within the household, gives them more mobility and exposes them to new ideas and knowledge.”
APW: Ok, let’s say someone wants to shop Fair Trade for their wedding. Where should they look?
CG: We actually have a free e-book on that very subject, which you can get right here. (It covers the “whys” and “where to finds,” including a whole section on fair trade bridesmaid dresses. And we are working on expanding the section on Fair Trade menswear too.)
APW: Are there other ways readers can buy ethical wedding dresses, if they either can’t afford or can’t find a Fair Trade wedding dress?
CG: Vintage dresses or pre-owned wedding dresses are great alternatives to Fair Trade dresses, since their carbon footprint is basically zero and you’re reusing an item that was previously worn.
CG: Other than the more academic sources I’ve sited above, here are three engaging ways to learn more about Fair Trade:
- Listen: To the (Kickstarter-funded) NPR podcast “Planet Money Makes a T-Shirt” for thoughtful insights into how our clothing is made, with insightful information delivered in bite-sized podcast bits.
- Watch: These ten-minute episodes of the Norwegian TV show “Sweatshop” about three teens working in clothing manufacturing in Cambodia. This is targeted at a younger audience but gives great visuals of what life and garment factory work are like in the developing world (and these are the factories that allowed cameras in!).
- Read: The book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn (or watch the PBS movie! Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide) for a more general overview of the plight of women in developing countries and uplifting stories of what works.