Why can’t we make our Fairtrade clothes in Poland?

What do you think when you hear about clothes made in India? Fast fashion? Child exploitation? Overwork and social injustice? And how about Poland? How do you envision sewing rooms in Poland? Prestigious factories? High-quality clothes? Fabrics of the best quality? If this is how you picture the fashion industry, please excuse us – this text will blow your mind.

Since the beginning of our journey towards the Fairtrade certificate, we knew why we were doing it. We wanted our actions to support the economy of countries of the Global South. We have been making clothes for so many years, but still – at the back of our heads – we had two pictures: one showed Polish seamstresses sewing clothes from the best quality fabrics, who thanks to their experience do it almost unbeatably, and the second – a sewing room in India, where although workers' rights may not be violated, we would not call it "modern". In both cases, however, it is possible to come up with mistaken assumptions.

As we were moving to the next levels of the Fairtrade certification process, we were also wondering how to meet the successive requirements... Everything was going smoothly. Up to the point that radically changed our perception of "sustainable" – local fashion. It turned out that as long as we make our clothes in Poland, the certificate is out of our reach. Why is it so? Because Polish sewing rooms are not Fairtrade certified. In theory – what do they need the certificate for? In practice? Not everything was so clear-cut ...

Fairtrade cares for standards that are not always considered in Poland

We considered familiar Polish sewing rooms as our role model (maybe it’s just us and our experience) – seamstresses earned decent wages and had work contracts – it seems that no extra Fairtrade certification (i.e. de facto protection) is necessary. We wanted to sew in a sewing room which – thanks to the award of the Fair Trade Coalition – would receive the support that would really improve the living conditions of its employees. Although in the end the production of blouses in India had turned to be more expensive than making them in Poland (due to expenses related to customs, transportation, documents and arrangements), we did not raise their prices. We wanted to be fair.

Sewing in India can be fair too

We wanted to be fair and make sure that the clothes we make for our clients are harmless to those who make them. Therefore, we had to find a sewing room that would give us a guarantee – and we found and still find the Fairtrade certificate as the best guarantee of good practices.

That is how we got in touch with the Reacher Apparels sewing room from India that was recommended to us. After more than two years of arrangements, inspections and negotiations, we were sure that the production of clothes in that place – in India, would be sustainable (and certified). At the same time, our heart was broken as we could not do it in Poland1. In the meantime, thanks to the Kupuj Odpowiedzialnie Foundation project, we had been learning more and more about poor working conditions in some Polish sewing rooms. Questions popped out: are Polish seamstresses really in a difficult situation, are their rights not respected? The media was silent. And so were the seamstresses. It turned out that Polish factories also require support.

We put our trust in the family business - we only wished it could be in the neighborhood

Working with Reachers was a surprise to us – a positive one, of course. The company has been developing dynamically, it passes smoothly audits, new plans, ideas and investments keep on popping out. Their employees – on top of the basic benefits package – receive extra benefits, their rights are respected, and all contracts are transparent. We were also surprised by their attitude to ecology. Reacher Apparels is not only Fairtrade certified, but also GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) certified – and that’s one more important award confirming the "honesty" of fabrics. We had no problems with contacting sewing room representatives, receiving information or introducing our ideas. The cooperation was promising from the very beginning.

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Welcome to Polish sewing rooms

Even though the cooperation with Reacher Apparels2 was (and is) going great, we were still bothered that we can’t sew in Poland if we want to go Fairtrade. Sure – choosing sewing rooms on our own, investigating their attitude to workers' rights, labor law, and environmental laws have always been an option. But still, none of them were Fair Trade Coalition certified (i.e. our clothes could not be certified, and therefore – would not support the economies of the countries that need it most). The sewing rooms we have always been working with on a daily basis are small family businesses – they do not apply for such „a high honors” as the Fairtrade certificate. They are also artists who sew on a small scale – they simply pursue their passion. Huge factories that could go for the Fairtrade certificate don't do it at all. Why?

Made in Poland” not always stands for „better”

And here the history begins to speed up – it was about two years ago when Polish seamstresses started talking about the backstage of their work, although the first information on poor conditions in sewing rooms had already appeared a little earlier. At the beginning, the women were very wary in telling their stories (because who would like to have their face associated with humiliating events) and reluctant to call things by their names and speak directly – I was exploited, my rights were violated, I was afraid. In interviews and reports, done among others by Grażyna Latos in cooperation with the Kupuj Odpowiedzialnie Foundation3, the first texts were written and published. It was reported that women in Polish sewing rooms experience mobbing, intimidation and humiliation. Health and safety standards are violated – employees work in unventilated rooms, sit on unadapted chairs – several hours a day. Even if they do have work contacts, extra hours are not paid and may be reimbursed only with "days off" – if the management allows it. Employees work in diapers as they are accounted for every visit in a toilet. They work for a few zlotys per hour.

Let’s speak the voice of those who can’t speak

We cannot say that we know how Polish seamstresses feel – none of us walk n their shoes. But we can still try to understand them and do our best to fight against wicked working conditions and exploitation. Where should we start? Let’s listen to the experts. We trust the Kupuj Odpowiedzialnie Foundation – we trust in their reports and projects. We check where our clothes are made, we ask bold questions to producers – also on social media (although it may seem “jejune”, believe it – it changes a lot).

Let's not be afraid to show support – and yes, let's do it on a large scale – let's share posts with information about the working conditions of Polish seamstresses. And let's also not forget about positive changes – let's give a high-five to them! Let's show support to the seamstresses we know – how about designing your piece of clothes and giving it to them or bringing them clothes that need minor amendments? Let's listen, let’s be compassionate, and make wise choices. Change has never been so dependent on our decisions and actions.

Example? Thanks to joint KOKOworld and the Kupuj Odpowiedzialnie Foundation initiative the hotline for Polish seamstresses was launched – as a part of the support, women can talk about their – often difficult – experiences related to working in sewing rooms. These conversations, while keeping a woman's identity confidential, are also a crucial source of information on the Polish fashion industry.

1 Companies that apply for Fairtrade certification for their products must produce them in places recognized as fair by the Fair Trade Coalition.

2 Read more on our cooperation with Reacher Apparels 

3 Please take your time to read those texts:

We fight for fair fashion - KOKOworld as the first Polish fashion brand with the Fairtrade certificate

Jeans for a better world!