Fair Trade: Giving People A Chance

I’m rooting for Knights Apparel, the South Carolina based company that is the leading producer of college-logo apparel. I admit that it sounds weird to be a fan of a “for profit” company. But my support isn’t because I’m an investor or a stockholder.

The reason that I’m rooting for Knights Apparel is because they have taken the huge risk of paying their third world employees a living wage. For those not familiar with the term, “living wage” is usually defined as the amount that it takes to shelter and feed a family. Most clothing manufacturers, including the big names of Nike and Addidas, fail to pay their workers enough to eke out a basic existence. These sweatshop practices have allowed the companies to make huge profits at the expense of others.

A number of circumstances have conspired to get me thinking about how to make a positive, long term impact in impoverished parts of the world. The list includes the books Money, Greed, and God by Jay Richards, When Helping Hurts by Brian Fikkert, and Debt Aid by Dambisa Moyo. In addition to the books, I learned a lot on The Crossing’s mission trip to Harmons, Jamaica last summer and a recent discussion with the management of Columbia’s own Mustard Seed, a fair trade store.

Much of what I learned is rather obvious. Most people would like a way out of poverty and are eager to work. The problem is a lack of jobs and the jobs that do exist often pay so little that there is no hope of ever being able to support a family. It’s important to note how much better jobs are than charity. Compared to charity, jobs are sustainable over the long term, give people more of a stake in the future of their community, lead to a sense of self respect and accomplishment, and help create a growing economy that provides economic opportunity for more and more people.

This is where Knights Apparel comes into the picture. The company was recently in the New York Times for their creation of a new kind of factory in the Dominican Republic. According to the article, the company led by Joseph Bozich is paying three and a half times the minimum wage in an attempt to help people earn enough money to take care of themselves and their family. The higher wages means that the company’s costs have increased by 20% but they are not passing those costs on to retailers or the consumer. Instead they will accept a lower profit per shirt hoping that students with a social conscience will buy their merchandise in greater numbers.

If this factory were to succeed by making a reasonable profit for Knights while treating its workers in a fair way, it would have a far reaching impact. Nike, which has received a fair amount of negative publicity for its practices, says that it is watching the Knights Apparel experiment with great interest. Let’s hope that they see that a company can make money and be a good neighbor at the same time.

One way you can support this project is by buying Knights Apparel when you have the opportunity. Another option is shopping at the Mustard Seed in downtown Columbia. They have a great selection of merchandise made by people in impoverished parts of the world who are looking for a market to sell their products at a fair price.

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