Sustainable Below The Belt

By Chiponda Chimbelu

When you walk into the Weltladen in Bonn, the first thing you see is a table full of vibrant colors – various shades of pink, blue, and green. And the real eye-catcher isn’t the colors, but the rather the product – and the unusual brand name. “Pants to Poverty” is an underwear collection from India – and the label in the back certifies them Fairtrade.

Sustainable underwear? Are you kidding me? At around 17 euros a pair, they are not exactly fair to my pocketbook. But maybe this is what you do when you are into sustainability. When I asked participants at the 2011 UN DPI NGO conference, no one admitted to wearing them – but most people thought it was a funny and a good idea.

“At the end of the day, you are gonna have to beat poverty one way, and if it’s through pants and it works what’s the problem?” one said, noting that making the distinction between fairtrade underwear and ordinary underwear clear would help consumers like these.

But are the undies really fair trade?

It is hard to tell the difference between fair trade and regular underwear just by looking at it. If it wasn’t for that label from Fairtrade International and the rather unusual name, Pants to Poverty would be just like any other pair of knickers: Solid colors, white waistband, brief cut.

“You will see on the (underwear’s) label for textiles made with fair-trade cotton. You’ll see on the label that it is fair trade, and underneath it says cotton,” said Jennifer Stapper, the Head of Communications at Fairtrade International.

I see. So it’s the cotton used to make the underwear that’s fair trade and not the pants. Stapper noted that it was important to make the distinction.

It’s hard to say whether consumers will read the fine print, but Fairtrade International is working on a fairtrade textile chain. That would mean that every part of the supply chain is sustainable and environmentally friendly. So there is a chance that such underwear could be certified Fairtrade in the future.

Tips for consumers

Fairtrade or not? Hard to tell...

But that’s really tough to do. Supply chains are really complicated, Stapper admits.For example, products may have a lower carbon footprint, but other drawbacks like the treatment of workers. Jennifer Stapper:

My tip? Well, do what I do. Be mindful of where the produce comes from. For example, because I live in Germany, I buy Spanish apples rather than the ones from New Zealand because I want to support produce with a lower carbon footprint whenever I can. I also do my homework. I keep track of the producers and retailers of the products I buy so that I can be a responsible consumer. And maybe even a sustainable one.

Do I wear Pants to Poverty? You’ll never find out.

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