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Why we want the student movement to lead the way on Fairtrade clothing

Thursday 26-05-2016 - 09:23

Just over a year ago I started at NUS and one of my questions was why do we own a clothing company?

Coming into a new organisation in a new sector I wasn't able to pay Epona too much attention in my first six months. I knew I would be spending a week learning about Epona and finding out about the impact of organic cotton farming and Fairtrade on communities in rural east India in January 2016 (you can look back on what we learnt during the trip with officers and Epona's Managing Director here).

That visit to India was truly one of the most transformational experiences I have had in over a decade. I quickly learnt that organic cotton farming and Fairtrade changes lives. It builds capacity, capability and resilience in communities. And at its heart is education and opportunity - education for the whole community with a special emphasis on children; chances for boys and girls. The connectivity and synergy with NUS therefore is obvious.

I joined the student movement believing students have the power to change the world through education. Organised through students' unions, students have the power to learn, to develop and to grow. To spot things that can and should be different and ensure we live our values through our business. The student movement has a chance to change a piece of the world for the better by changing the clothing market and insisting that SU clothing is Fairtrade, and then beyond that buying clothes that have not hurt or exploited people in the process.

As clothing get ever cheaper on the high street, the supply chain gets ever murkier. We all know that I am sure, but do we think about it on a daily basis, and how do we know when a supply chain is good enough? How do we know that paying £2 extra for a garment literally buys the safety, security and education of others if nobody tells us? How do we know that £2 is the difference between a fair wage and all that comes with that, or an exploitative system which relies on child labour if our SUs will sell products that run contrary to our shared values?

How can we make this happen?

For starters, students' unions and NUS can make a stand together and only sell Fairtrade clothing. It is the right thing to do.

We have to live our values through ethical enterprise, so we can all be proud to stock, sell and wear the clothing sold in students' unions. Running alongside this we can raise awareness of the beneficial impact organic cotton farming and Fairtrade has on the education and lives of rural villagers in Eastern India.

That is why in NUS100, we set out an aim for all SUs to be 100 per cent Fairtrade in six years’ time. There are currently seven students' unions that are 100 per cent Fairtrade and we are looking for the next set of pioneers to make this commitment.

There are three simple and compelling reasons why we need to go 100 per cent Fairtrade:

  1. It changes people's lives for the better - I saw firsthand the difference organic farming and Fairtrade does to create hope and belief in the power of education.
  2. It is the right thing to do - paying people properly, equal rights regardless of gender and sexual identity, challenging discrimination and discrimination, the right to organise collectively, the right to freedom of association; things we fight for every day in the UK and can impact on global efforts too
  3. The whole supply chain is traceable meaning we can help eradicate forced and child labour, and ensure that strict work place rules are in place to tackle sexual harassment and working conditions.

On top of this we know that this generation of students want to shop in ethical and sustainable ways more than any other before them. So if we all get behind this and do the right thing it can work commercially and we can generate more finance to reinvest in achieving our campaigning and influencing activity.

We have the opportunity to drive real change. That is what students' unions and NUS collaborating is all about. Working together to create big change that has a lasting impact on people's lives, by changing  the way we understand and think and knowing we are responsible for shaping a just and sustainable future.

Putting your university or college name on a garment that you can be proud is helping communities, not hurting them. One garment at a time, approximately seven million students in about 600 students' unions changing lives through the clothes we stock and the clothes we wear.

Doing nothing is not an option. Being pioneers and change makers really is.

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