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Is America ready for eco-fashion?

Fair-trade clothing is a hit in Europe. But some wonder if American will buy into this trend.

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"The recession may actually shift the balance from the usual kinds of trade to a more ethical trade," says Professor Jafarey, "if people begin to take into account the environmental impact in the production of these items."

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Indeed, more than 70 percent of the British populace recognize the fair-trade mark, whereas consumer recognition in the United States is only 28 percent, according to recent surveys.

TransFair USA, the nonprofit that licenses products to carry the fair-trade certified label on agricultural products, says it is looking into establishing standards for apparel. But fair-trade fashion faces significant hurdles in the US.

"It's quite easy for the fiber industry to develop their own weak ecolabels in order to pull the wool over the eyes of consumers," says Craig Minowa, an environmental scientist with the Organic Consumers Association.

American fair-trade fashion has already arrived, says Lynda Grose, a sustainable fashion design pioneer, although it's not yet advertised as such. Companies like Eileen Fisher, Levi's, and American Ap­­parel all incorporate elements of fair trade.

In the US, organic products crowd out the fair-trade message, but the biggest hurdle remains in making the link between individual purchases to development work and wages in far-off countries, says Carmen Iezzi of the Fair Trade Federation in Washington, D.C.

In one study, fewer than 6 percent of Americans could name a fair-trade organization unaided, according to a report last month by the federation.

"In an economic climate where nearly 55 percent of consumers are said to be trimming what they consider to be discretionary spending ... it is clear that Fair Trade Organizations have not yet engaged a potentially receptive audience in their work," the report concluded.

Even in Europe, fair trade has not yet become mainstream. The average consumer in Switzerland, which has seen more penetration of fair-trade products than any other nation, still buys only ¤21 ($28) worth of such goods per year, according to a December report by the Dutch Association of Worldshops.

Ultimately, the fringe quality of its customer base may be what insulates fair-trade apparel from the chill winds of recession. If the customers are mostly well-educated professionals, then perhaps they're less likely to lose their jobs and cut back on purchases.

That's not the customer base that most fair-trade advocates want, however.

"I think it's important it [fair trade] isn't just a nice cozy middle-class thing to do," says Minney, who links up with hot young designers and supermodels willing to collaborate for the cause.

But the key to her success is her years in the field working with farming cooperatives and slum-based activists, as well as garment workers and jewelrymakers.

For example, Minney and her design team are working with a community project employing 2,000 low-caste hand weavers in the remote Katmandu Valley in Nepal.

Few ethical labels have yet figured out how to scale up to that size, fair-trade consultants say. Consequently, only a few companies have begun developing cohesive, full-bodied fashion labels – the prerequisite to brand recognition which Minney has seemingly achieved.

"It's a tricky thing to cover technical assistance and the capacity building and campaigning work that goes into building a market," says Minney, "but [this] is a different model, one that can make an enormous difference in people's lives."

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