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Happiness is fair trade T-shirts

The Toronto Star


The Dalai Lama speaks today at the Rogers Center. He is coming to deliver a talk on human happiness, but it is his presence and his example that is shifting the priorities of local business in Toronto.

He has been invited to speak by the Canadian Tibetan Association of Ontario, and it, like the rest of us, has its own projects and priorities.

One of these is raising money to build a Tibetan centre in Ontario. This year, as in years before, it is selling T-shirts at a profit in order to raise funds. It needs to make as much money as possible off the sale of the shirts and in years past simply has used the cheapest T-shirts available.

Unfortunately, cheap T-shirts invariably mean sweatshop labour, and so this year a member of the Tibetan community suggested that it use fair-trade T-shirts.

This was a difficult decision. Fair-trade shirts are more expensive than sweatshop shirts and cut directly into fundraising, but the price difference is reflected in the living standards of the labourers.

For example, Gildan Activewear Inc. is able to produce very inexpensive shirts. Its labour standards are not high. Gildan is certified as meeting fair labour standards by a group called the Fair Labour Association (FLA), which also certifies Nike, Adidas, and Asics.

The FLA guarantees to meet either the minimum wage in the country or the prevailing industry wage. It fails to mention that the prevailing industry wage is usually sweatshop labour wage, and that the minimum wage in many countries either does not exist or is set to base-level subsistence.

The FLA has also committed to no more than a 60-hour work week, but this does not apply when there are “extraordinary business circumstances.” It does not require members to pay overtime unless they are legally obliged to do so. Workers are allowed one day off a week.

The shirts provided by the Fair Trade Clothing Co-op, on the other hand, are from a co-operative in El Salvador that is owned and run by single mothers. The women make on average $89 per week, more than double the standard sweatshop wage in El Salvador. They have the weekends off, and their workdays have decreased from 12 hours to eight. They do not have to leave their children alone at night.

In the end, the Tibetan Association of Ontario had to make a decision between potentially losing some of its income and supporting fair trade, or going with standard business practice. It chose to go with the fair trade shirts. The Fair Trade Clothing Co-op in Toronto also lowered the price on the shirts as far as it possibly could without actually losing money. And the consumer will end up paying a little more at the end of the day.

Is all this work worth it? Is the sacrifice demanded from every group at every stage of this process worth the labour standards of people in other countries? Are human rights worth it?

I think so. I don’t doubt that the Dalai Lama thinks so. The Canadian Tibetan Association of Ontario thinks so. And some consumers will think so.

It is unquestionable that fairer trade - with fewer sweatshops, fewer human rights abuse, less poverty, less child labour - will raise the cost of the products we buy. From sneakers to T-shirts this is true.

But extreme poverty is a human rights abuse, and allowing it to happen for the sake of cheap products is not something we should be willing to do.

Hillary Vipond is an intern with Canadian Crossroads International, an NGO working with southern partners to address the root causes of poverty and HIV/AIDS.


  1. Silvan Erb-Summers

    Thankyou for this article! I am presently volunteering at a Buddhist meditation center and trying to convens people to buy fair trade for the store. It’s time for us to put our money where our mouth is. This article will be very helpful.

  2. Rosie Ivie

    i am looking for some Gilden Tshirts to buy wholesale who are sweatshop free.

  3. obviously like your website but you need to test the spelling on quite a few of your posts.
    Many of them are rife with spelling problems and I to find
    it very troublesome to inform the truth however I will certainly come back again.

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