Dieter Overath // Founder & CEO of TransFair e.V. // Fairtrade Germany
Interviewed by Cherie Birkner
"No one wanted fair coffee at first either, and now it's available in every store."
Why do you care about fair trade fashion?
It simply isn't acceptable for people to have to work under dangerous and unstable conditions anywhere in the world. People have a very emotional relationship with clothing—for example, we simply must have one particular shirt. But we don't have empathy with the producers of the clothing, simply because they live a few thousand kilometers away. It's important to me to end this double standard, because moral responsibility transcends national borders. Fairtrade has an important bridge-building function here. Establishing fair trade really means nothing more than implementing fundamental human rights that apply without exception all over the world to every single human being.
How are Fairtrade and sustainability related?
The entire Fairtrade system stands for sustainability. Fairtrade standards are based on comprehensive social, ecological, and economic criteria. In clothing, sustainability for consumers also means establishing other forms of consumption, since the textile industry has particularly bad working conditions. Price and time pressures make possible improvements difficult. I see sustainable consumption with my daughters, for example: second hand stores and clothing exchanges are good concepts. The rule of thumb in shopping has to be less is more. We have to choose quality over quantity and show more appreciation not just for our clothing but for the work of the people who make it possible.
What achievements are you most proud of concerning your work for Fairtrade?
This is an anniversary year for us, and I am very proud of everything we've accomplished in the last 25 years. As of now, there are over 7,000 Fairtrade products available in Germany. 1.66 million people in Africa, Asia, and Latin America profit from better working conditions and quality of life. With regard to textiles, the new Fairtrade Textile Standard and the Fairtrade Textile Programme are truly innovative. We can now reach every stage in the supply chain. The textile standard is also the first such standard to have a binding provision for the payment of living wages within six years. Living wages are a huge challenge that we take on with our work. What's important here is not just financial survival but much more the idea that every human being should be able to lead their life in dignity.
What motivated you to take on the fashion industry with fair trade?
Since the tragic collapse of the Rana Plaza textile factory in Bangladesh more attention has been paid to the poor working conditions in the textile industry. But I'm not just thinking of the 30 million textile workers worldwide but also the 350 million cotton farmers in Africa and Asia. The level of poverty in countries like India or Ethiopia goes far beyond what we in Europe think of as the poverty line. In large parts of the world, men, women, and children live in desperate and inhumane conditions. Consumption in the global north makes us at least indirectly responsible for this suffering. A purchase decision always has a political dimension, and we have to always try to be aware of that.
How do you think the fashion industry will change in the next five years?
Consumers are much more aware of the problems in the industry. But there's still a large gulf between willingness and actual purchasing behaviour. Consumers have to put their money where their mouth is. People talk about Green Fashion but are vague about the concrete working conditions such as salaries. Our work is getting the subject of sustainable consumption out into society through our campaigning and PR activities. But above all, we need more government involvement. Work uniforms generate a great deal of turnover. That's why the federal government as the biggest buyer has to face the question of why, for example, the army and hospital personnel aren't already wearing fair textiles. How much is going to change in the next few years is mostly a question of political will. TransFair is using its list of political demands to pressure governments to get sorely needed improvements underway.
What arguments do you use when acquiring partners in the fashion industry?
Fairtrade benefits all sides. On the one hand, Fairtrade offers companies the possibility of making the supply chain more transparent and sustainable. On the other hand, the working conditions of employees will be significantly improved. Something to remember here: satisfied workers are good workers. We have decades of experience in how consumers and markets work. We've had terrific results in food, particularly in coffee, bananas, and chocolate, but in flowers as well. We can bring what we've learned into this field, and we have a successful track record. We need to put a lot of effort into persuasion and we need a lot of determination. No one wanted fair coffee at first either, and now it's available in every store.
What are your goals for fair trade fashion in the next year?
We're not going to achieve fairness in the textile sector overnight. Only a long process and, especially, the participation of everyone involved will result in the necessary changes. Right now, it's a little like a billiard table: everyone says everyone else is responsible and just hits the ball from one side of the table to the other. But it will only work if we all work together. I hope that in the future all Fairtrade products have the same level of variety and availability as we have with coffee today. That's why I hope that government and distributors show the right initiative. We've talked about it enough. We know far too much to think doing nothing or only a little would be acceptable. We need new action now!