Fairtrade Australia CEO Molly Harriss Olson explains how an ethical supply chain should not longer be considered charity but rather, the way of doing business.

For millions of farmers in Indian, cotton is the only life they know. Their parents picked cotton, and their children will too.

Long days in the field are spent in back-breaking manual labour. During harvest season, every daylight hour is spent picking the fluffy white balls that become someone’s t-shirt or pair of jeans.

Farmers are at the mercy of weather and crops can be wiped out in a single storm. On the flipside, a plentiful harvest can drive down prices leaving families without income and burdened with debt.

While many farmers would like to hire labourers to help, most cannot afford to, so take on the immense task themselves – or rely on their children.

Cotton is the most important crop in the world textile industry. About 20 million tonnes of cotton is produced each year, yet the estimated 100 million rural households who produce it are living in poverty. The price of cotton has slumped in the last 30 years, while the cost of producing the crop has risen. A long-term decline in income means that farmers in Asia, West Africa and elsewhere are struggling to survive.

The 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, which killed 1,134 garment workers, highlighted the horrific conditions that can exist in the clothing supply chain, but the farmers at the beginning of the process are still invisible.

Often it is these invisible farmers who are most vulnerable. Currently Fairtrade works with almost 55,000 cotton farmers in eight countries at each stage of cotton production, from farming and ginning (separating the cotton fibre from the seed), to spinning, weaving and manufacturing.

The Vasudha Cooperative in Madhya Pradesh in central India, a collective of around 1,500 farmers, achieved Fairtrade certification in 2006. Recognising that education is crucial to their community’s development, the cooperative has used its Fairtrade Premium funds – additional money over and above the Fairtrade price – to buy land, and then build and equip a school. The Vasudha Vidya Vihar School now has more than 500 students.

Shiv Narayan Patidar is just one farmer and father whose children attend the school. His ambition is to develop the school up to “degree college level” so children can study business and technology.

“We don’t have funds yet, but we are determined. Having the school and seeing how well our children are doing has boosted confidence throughout the community,” he says.

This story is just one example of why we need to think more about where our clothes come from. Australians have real power at the checkout, and our collective purchases can have an impact all the way back to workers and cotton farmers halfway around the world.

Each year Baptist World Aid Australia tracks the efforts of fashion companies to improve workplace safety, provide a living wage for workers, and secure freedom from child labour and slavery.

This year’s report benchmarked 106 fashion companies, and found many companies have accelerated their efforts to improve conditions for workers.

But just four labels – Etiko, Mighty Good Undies, RREPP and Audrey Blue – were awarded A+ grades. And not surprisingly, these four brands are Fairtrade certified.

The consistently high marks achieved by these brands, as well as other Australian Fairtrade-certified fashion labels represented in this report, reflects the wider Fairtrade system which delivers traceability, auditing and wage improvements along the full length of the supply chain.

This year’s report finds that, more work needs to be done to trace their suppliers all the way back to the raw materials. While 76 per cent of those companies assessed have traced all their cut-make-trim factories, just six per cent understand where their raw materials come from. How can a company have confidence that its suppliers are adhering to code standards if they do not know who their suppliers are in the first place?

The fashion industry holds in its hands the ability to change the lives of millions of farmers and workers involved in the production of their garments. This can only happen if companies know exactly who they are working with all the way along their supply chains.

But everyone has the power to ask questions of their favourite brands. Where does your cotton come from? If the answer is unknown, then how can you be sure they are looking after farmers?

Buying a fairly-traded garment is not charity. It’s fulfilling our commitment towards the people who were responsible for creating the garment in the first place.

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