How fair trade T-shirts came to the York University Bookstore

York already has Las Nubes fair trade coffee available on campus. Now the York University Bookstore, in partnership with the Business & Society Program (BUSO), will offer fair trade T-shirts.

It’s a first for a university bookstore in Canada, thanks to the work of three York professors.

Provided by Wearfair, the T-shirts are made of 100 per cent fair trade organic cotton certified by TransFair Canada, a member of the Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International. In time, the bookstore plans on expanding beyond T-shirts into other clothes.

“It is particularly satisfying that we are able to price these Wearfair, organic cotton shirts without the usual premium price that makes people think twice about doing the right thing,” says Steve Glassman, director of the bookstore. He notes that the initiative will ultimately depend upon the response of the York community. “While the shirts are quite reasonably priced, it’s up to our students to vote with their wallet for a fair trade alternative.”

The Wearfair T-shirts are an initiative that came about through the Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council of Canada-funded Internationalizing The Social Economy Through Fair Trade, a sub-project of the Community-University Research Alliance for Southern Ontario’s Social Economy, involving Professors Darryl Reed and J.J. McMurtry of BUSO in the Department of Social Science and Ananya Mukherjee-Reed of York’s Department of Political Science, both in the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies.

“The aim of the project was to establish connections between social economy enterprises in Ontario and India,” says Mukherjee-Reed. The researchers were investigating the potential for connections between social economy enterprises in India and Ontario, how they could form these connections, what problems might arise and who would benefit from them. Wearfair is a division of their community partner in the project, the Guelph-based Sumac Community Worker Co-operative.

The promotion of Wearfair products and sustainable purchasing on York’s campus is something Reed and his colleagues have been involved in for several years, having worked closely with the late York Professor Howard Daugherty and student organizations. Inspired by Daugherty’s Las Nubes coffee initiative, the York researchers investigated what it would take to develop a new Wearfair product line in cotton goods, one which would even go beyond fair trade standards.

Working with Sumac, which also operates the fair trade coffee company Planet Bean, the researchers and their partners agreed that the new importing company Wearfair should be set up to import fair trade cotton products from India, chosen as a site of production because of the desperate situation of cotton farmers and garment workers there.

The researchers and Wearfair then teamed up with an Indian social enterprise garment manufacturer, which was established to provide employment for disabled and marginalized women. It uses any surplus it generates to fund other social projects, including schools, hospitals and orphanages.

Mukherjee-Reed says they were delighted that one of the results of their research project was this connection between Sumac and a social enterprise garment manufacturer in India.

Cotton growers in India are exposed to any of 118 different pesticides, commonly without protection. Depressed prices and pressures to adopt unsustainable practices has resulted in economic and environmental calamity, which in turn have lead to a variety of social problems including high suicide rates among small cotton farmers. Wearfair production helps to ensure small producers protection from the vagaries of the cotton market by providing long term contracts and minimum prices, as well as other forms of support. The additional price premium that Wearfair pays for organic cotton encourages sustainable production.

“This first purchase by the York Bookstore has enabled us to take the Wearfair initiative from a conceptual pilot project to a business start up. The York support shows vision as well as a commitment to purchasing that embraces social justice and ecological sustainability,” said Bill Barrett, manager of Wearfair. The York order was placed months in advance of the harvest, and was personally coordinated through production and delivery to the Keele campus in December.

Wearfair is a York licensee, with royalties from the sale of goods slotted for student and campus related projects. Wearfair also is a member of the Fair Labor Association.

There will be a launch event for the fair trade clothing line at the York University Bookstore in York Lanes, Keele campus, on Tuesday, March 29 at 3pm. President & Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri will deliver the opening remarks at 3:15pm. A reception and T-shirt promotion will follow the launch.