It Takes a Village

Exploring what it means to be ethically fashionable in a consumer world that has come to value the fast and trendy above all. 

written by Jessica Shalvey // photography by Emma Sharon // direction by Gabrielle Stanfield

Upon hearing the term “fair trade,” many tend to think of coffee or produce, where fair trade certification is perhaps most often seen. However, the sustainability-centered social movement, dedicated to empowerment and equality in a global community, has entered a new realm of influence: the apparel industry. 

Fair trade has two major focuses - the planet and the people who inhabit it. By sourcing from participants who hold themselves to rigorous standards in regards to working conditions, wages, hours, and the absence of child labor, fair-trade-certified businesses are able to improve industry standards and how they treat their workers. Employees, especially women, gain a new, much needed voice in the workplace, and are empowered in community development. Similarly, by promoting practices and setting environmentally friendly goals, such as regulating runoff, GMOs, and waste disposal, fair trade businesses are simultaneously creating a cleaner earth on which future generations will live and grow. 

On Charlottesville’s bustling downtown mall, one store in particular, Ten Thousand Villages, has held itself to these standards that should soon become a norm in the clothing industry. The fair trade apparel and handmade decor shop writes on its website that “together, we directly impact the lives of 20,000 makers in 30 developing countries.” Since its founding in 1946, more than 70 locations have arisen nationwide, allowing for $140 million in sustainable income earned by makers who may otherwise be unemployed or underemployed.

Through fair trade regulation, extra funding is given to communities from certified companies. These communities can then decide how to use the funds for various economic, environmental, and social development projects, such as access to education and healthcare. In America, standards are generally set by Fair Trade USA, a non-profit organization that is the leading certifier and pro- moter of companies that act in an ethical manner.

Lara Mitchell, a Sales Associate for Ten Thousand Villages, said, “I think [the college age] gen- eration, my daughter’s generation, is very aware, more than we were. You’ll have children someday, and those children will have children, and if we’re going in the same direction we’ve been going in the past 50 to 80 years, we’re going to be in bad shape.” 

When discussing how to best address our responsibilities as part of modern consumer culture, Mitchell also notes that globally, fair trade is a win- win. “Why not, right? You’re going to buy chocolate, you’re going to buy a lamp, you’re going to buy a pillow, why not make it fair trade," said Mitchell. 

Internationally, fair trade is regulated by the World Fair Trade Organization, which operates in over seventy countries and defines the practice as a “tangible contribution to the fight against poverty, climate change and global economic crisis.” The WFTO also outlines Ten Principles of Fair Trade that organizations must follow in their day-to-day work, including fair payment, capacity building, and respect for the environment. In an often material-centered and increasingly individualized world, citizens have taken on the new role of consumers: a power that can be used for good through the everyday choices we make regarding the things we buy.

“It’s a personal situation. Why would I go to another store like Walmart or whatever when I can get beautiful things here?” said Mitchell. She emphasizes that fair trade is a much needed global movement. “We’re helping people, and that’s what you have to do now, that’s what the country’s come down to, we have to help each other. There’s no more being selfish.”

Ten Thousand Villages works off of the motto, “Live Life Fair.” As part of a movement and mission promoting equality, culture, and consciousness, the shop is creating positive change in the Charlottesville community and beyond towards more sustainable living in a consumer world.