from The Capital Times
By Lynn Welch
MIDDLETON - A new apparel company here wants to bring fair trade clothing to the mainstream.
Fair Indigo, founded by four former Lands' End employees, launched its Web and catalog business Monday. The company plans to open its first store at the Hilldale Shopping Center Nov. 1.
Calling itself "style with a conscience," the company aims to sell mid-priced men's and women's clothes to people who shop for a cause.
Fair Indigo's CEO Bill Bass sees a big opportunity to bring the concept of fair trade clothing to the middle market. In a study the company commissioned with Greenfield Online of 624 women age 30 to 55, 86 percent said they care about fair trade issues, Bass said.
"Fair trade started in Europe and the growth in the U.S. has mirrored the growth in Europe, we're just lagging," Bass explained. "No one has really done this (clothing) in the U.S."
No certification currently exists for clothing wishing to use the fair trade label, according to the Fair Trade Federation trade group and TransFair USA, an independent certifier of fair trade goods.
Fair Indigo said it works with small, family-owned factories and co-ops where workers are paid a "fair wage," instead of the minimum wage. That means paying enough so a worker can afford a basket of goods including housing, food, health care, education with disposable income left over, Bass said.
They keep costs down for consumers by working directly with factories and cutting other overhead like fancy furniture - many of Fair Indigo's 20 employees use long, plastic folding tables as desks - and constructing its Web site in-house.
The result is 110 competitively priced items including a cashmere turtleneck sweater selling for $129 and a silk chiffon flip skirt for $79.
"We wanted to make this a very easy decision for people," Bass said. "You don't have to sacrifice style, quality or price to make a socially conscious decision."
The company sells fair trade staples such as coffee and tea, soaps and lotions, and accessories in addition to clothing. Coffee is sourced through Madison's Just Coffee, Queen B soaps are made by moms in New Orleans, Inara spa products come from a women's co-op in Brazil, and accessories come from cooperatives in Bali and Nepal, according to the company.
Apparel items come from 23 factories and cooperative businesses located around the globe including in Peru, Costa Rica, Macao and China.
Women's shoes and handbags are made in Italy by Madison European shoe firm Preidt.
"The style aspect is really important to us as well," stressed Elizabeth Ragone, Fair Indigo's style director, who founded the firm with Bass, Don Hughes and Rob Behnke, who came up with the idea for the business.
The style reflects the Ann Taylor, J.Jill or Macy's lines, Ragone said, with a more feminine look for the women and sportswear with a twist for men.
Renee Gasch, a public relations and Web coordinator with SERRV International in Madison, said there has been an overall growth in interest in fair trade products in general. That organization's sales have grown in the double-digit range for the past two years. Interest in fair trade products increased 22 percent in 2005, Gasch said.
But without certification, it can be tricky to assure that consumers are getting true fair trade goods, according to Nicole Chettero with TransFair USA.
TransFair recently concluded a feasibility study of the garment industry. It concluded that starting an apparel certification program would be too complex at this time.
"You have the people who grew and harvested the cotton, people who processed that cotton and made it into raw material and then those that took that material to make it into a garment itself," Chettero said. "For us to put our label on it, every single layer has to be certified."
In lieu of a certification label, consumers should look for businesses that are members of the Fair Trade Federation, which sets standards for businesses engaging in fair trade.
Fair Indigo is not yet a member, but has applied to be a member of the Fair Trade Federation.
Jonathan Rosenblum, a research analyst with the Center for Media and Democracy in Madison and an expert in labor rights and fair labor standards, is skeptical about Fair Indigo's fair trade claims.
"Who could be against doubling the minimum wage?" Rosenblum said. "But to say it's doubling wages, for those of us who have been working to assure fair labor standards understand it, is not the same thing as saying it's non-sweat (shop)."
Rosenblum said Fair Indigo is making a big claim. And it's one that is not supported by their advertising copy, he said, which gives little indication of the standards employed by the family factories or who is monitoring them to assure wages or conditions are fair.
"I don't think that a U.S. business that's seeking to make the assertion to call itself fair trade needs to produce promotions of factory owners. What it needs to produce is information for consumers that says here's who (the factories) are, where they are and who we sent there," Rosenblum said. "I'm very eager and would like to know that in Middleton, that this is where the cutting edge of change is. But I don't see the evidence of that and I'd like to see that."
With people's interest in fair trade goods growing, Bass sees a chain of stores opening across the country in the next four to five years. He believes the product line will resonate with people in markets like Madison, such as Portland, Ore.; Seattle, San Francisco, Chapel Hill, N.C.; and Boulder, Colo.
It's all much bigger than Behnke envisioned.
Behnke, Fair Indigo's vice president of merchandising, had the "big wow" early last year while working in Japan with Lands' End. Just becoming a consumer of fair trade coffee himself, Behnke went looking on Google for mainstream fair trade clothes. He found little.
"My original pitch was to have a small local business with a store and maybe a Web site and to run it pretty modestly," Behnke said. "Bill and Don came back to me and said it could be much bigger."
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