Is it possible to change the world one pair of chinos at a time? A new crop of businesses think fair-trade apparel will be as good for companies as it is for the conscience.
BILL BASS WAS looking for a new challenge. He had already helped usher in the ubiquity of online shopping - first as senior vice president of e-commerce for Lands' End and then as vice president and general manager of Sears Customer Direct (after Sears, Roebuck & Co. purchased Lands' End in 2002). He left Sears in March 2005, and when he and several of his former coworkers got together and were shooting the breeze, Robert Behnke mentioned the fair-trade coffees he had tried. And being a guy who had worked in the apparel industry, Behnke said he wanted fair-trade clothes too.
"So, that's what we decided to do," says Bass.
Not that it was that easy. It took 18 months, but then Bass was cofounder and CEO of Fair Indigo, a company in Middleton, Wisconsin, with 30 employees, 25 of whom are former Lands' End coworkers. (Behnke is a cofounder and the vice president of merchandising.) Their team spent more than a year looking for factories that not only could provide the kind of volume the company would need but also could adhere to fair-trade principles. Bass says that one factory they approached did not respond because they thought it, this idea of paying workers more, must be part of an Internet scam. In September 2006, Fair Indigo's print catalog and online businesses opened. In November, it opened its first retail store in Madison, Wisconsin. Fair Indigo's clothes are designed to appeal to men and women of ages 30 to 55. The linen jackets and cashmere sweaters, if you didn't know better, could be mistaken for those available at Ann Taylor or Lands' End. There are none of the Ugly Betty ponchos that come to mind when one hears the term fair trade.
Fair Indigo now works with 25 factories across the globe; some specialize in skirts, others in sweaters. Bass says Fair Indigo's business model of selling directly to customers, through catalogs, the Internet, and its own boutiques, as opposed to selling through national retailers, keeps overhead low enough that it can afford to pay workers at its factories more. Because Fair Indigo is a private firm, Bass will not release sales figures, but he says the company is on track to turn a profit within four years, a time frame analysts say is in line for new apparel companies, fair trade or not.