Summer Rayne Oakes

“Eco fashion” has definitely become the buzzword of the moment.

Within the last month alone, my office has received calls from over a half-dozen trade shows and runway organizers seeking to green their events. Apparel companies and clients feverishly searching for organic clothing sources are also becoming quite common. The press seems to be foaming at the mouth for new material too, which is always a good sign; but, in the U.S. at least, we have yet to graduate beyond the “green” theme. This week I’ll be speaking to a U.K.-based women’s glossy on “ethical fashion,” a term I hear used far more frequently in Europe.

“Ethical” brings a more social-cultural perspective to the mix, one you don’t always get when talking straight up “eco” speak. The term has its roots in the fair-trade movement. Fair trade got its start 50 years ago, well before the idea of “eco fashion” was ever embraced by popular culture. It started with international aid groups working with small-scale African farmers. It wasn’t until the late 1980s that an international system of Fair Trade certification and labeling was introduced, but heck — that was about 20 years ago!

Still, “fair trade” and “ethical” fashion have yet to find their footing in America’s popular culture. They are terms that still remain too esoteric for the general public, particularly because fair trade is more often associated with foodstuffs and artsy-crafty products. There are a couple of reasons for this.

First, it is a challenge to place design teams on the ground to work with artisan groups on product design, mainly for financial reasons. Because of this, very few organizations or companies have begun developing cohesive, full-bodied fashion labels, which is necessary for brand recognition. Second, Transfair USA, the only third-party certifier of fair-trade products in the United States, is still working out ways to certify fashion products. As an alternative, labels can choose to become a part of the Fair Trade Federation, an association of businesses committed to fair wages and good employment, but many ethical, fair-trade brands choose to opt out of this and go it alone.

After I participated in fair-trade discussions at the World Trade Organization in Hong Kong in December 2005, it was clear that the principal challenge that many fair-trade fashion labels face is the concept of “scaling up” — in both size and sophistication. Those that I find to be the most successful and innovative are the ones that are exploring new and different partnerships — ones that help give credibility, public recognition, resources, and a fresh image to fair trade.

People Tree, one of the pioneers in fair-trade fashion, works tirelessly with 50 fair-trade groups in 15 developing countries. They have an extensive line of affordable men’s, women’s, youth, and baby clothes, principally sold in the U.K. and Japan. In June, they will unveil a limited-edition partnership line in Vogue Nippon with international fashion designers Thakoon, Richard Nicoll, Bora Aksu, and Foundation Addict. This is fresh off the backs of their permanent collection housed in TopShop, which officially launched in February 2006.

Mercado Global, a fair-trade line of fashion accessories originally founded by Echoing Green winners Ruth DeGolia and Benita Singh, has also announced a partnership with Levi’s, which will include a collection of fair-trade bags and accessories from Guatemala. Lotus by LOA, the newest fair-trade label that I have worked with, focuses on skilled artisans’ cooperatives in India. They are helping raise the profile of fair trade by offering chic and sophisticated décor and accessories through traditional retail outlets, partnerships, and corporate gifts. Indigo Handloom, a company focused on creating an elegant line of clothes in partnership with handloom weavers in India, was brought to my attention a couple weeks ago. From the looks of their initial website, they are a prime example of a company with terrific brand potential. World of Good, which works with 133 artisan groups in 31 countries, has also taken an interesting approach with its accessory line. They distribute their products through colorfully displayed kiosks in spas, salons, bookstores, yoga studios, and malls.

Programs such as these will help give a fresh look to fair-trade fashion and make products more widely available to the general public. Brands can leverage the concept the same way “green” has been leveraged in the marketplace: as an aspirational, good-for-the-world way of life. Like organics, fair trade is growing in double digit percentage points every year, a telltale sign that the concept of “fair-trade fashion” is truly taking off.