So You Want to Run a Fairtrade Business?

This is a brief retrospective of what I’ve learned in the 6 years I’ve been running Fair & Bare, a Fairtrade t-shirt company along with my wife.

If you’re a new follower of mine, you heard right – I run a Fairtrade t-shirt company. I’ve not actively been marketing it more recently for a number of reasons, but I still have a strong belief in our original vision. That vision was that Fairtrade shirts at the time weren’t being well received by the world, despite being available. We believed they could be, if we were only to find some that had good designs (and were possibly less ‘preachy’).

So that’s what we set out to do. From 2007-2011 we were running as an online design competition, inspired mainly by Threadless and Emptees, and helped via a great community of designers through a site I built entirely myself (whilst doing a PhD, getting married and buying a house). I’ve since learned that I don’t believe the competition sourced design is the best fit for what we are trying to do, but it constantly excited me that we *could* do it. I still hope some day to be proved wrong though.

Lessons Learned

The Ethical market pales in comparison to the cheaper alternatives. That probably won’t come as news to you. Most people – like it or not, will buy cheap over quality if they’re perceived to be comparable. This has certainly been my experience so far, having touted our wares at student markets, Fairtrade stalls and online. Be prepared to experience it first hand, and to repeatedly go over your story to get people to part with their cash. That is, after all, your unique selling point.

While we’re at it, if you’re selling online, be prepared to experience the same. When so much hard work has gone into creating your goods, you’ll find it heartbreaking to have a couple of people take up an offer from a newsletter of thousands. My advice would be not to get your hopes up….

But don’t entirely despair. When you make those few sales you’ll feel such a strong connection with your customer, even though you may never meet them. Repeat customers will give you a warm glow inside and smile all day long.

The Fairtrade supply chain is slow(er) and (more) fallible. We constantly had trouble with every supplier we used for our shirts over how quickly we could obtain stock and sometimes with the stock itself. Obviously, once our community had selected a design, we wanted it printed and available for sale. We knew we would have to wait for designs to be printed, but what we hadn’t counted on was how long it could take to get hold of shirts we’d ordered. Other businesses might be able to cope better with such delays. 2 months to go from selected to online is not ideal for our business model that relies on constant momentum, especially when we were dealing with a a single product at a time.

Depending on your supplier, you may also experience variations in sizes and colour. Be wary, you’re going to have to deal with all the resulting issues that arise from these problems with your customers or be lumbered with stock you’re unable to shift.

Times are hard for everyone. Since having started, 2 of the 3 suppliers we used have shut up shop and the third has changed it’s supplier. This has drastically reduced the options for us to the point of being unviable, which is one of the reasons we haven’t put out a new design since 2011. (If anyone is able to point me in the direction of other wholesale ethical brands, I’d be keen to hear about them).

Fairtrade cotton, Fairtrade or fair trade? Organic? Soil association certified? You need to be aware of the differences, because competitors will use similar terms. Even though they mean different things to you, most customers don’t know the difference and lump them all in the same good for the producer pot.

First impressions count. Originally, we used to send out our t-shirts in recycled packaging we sourced from envelopes we had kicking around our house. I have to cringe at this now – the idea that old crumply packets were being received with sticky-taped-on labels. That was our first physical impression on our customer. *Sigh*. Our heart was in the right place though, we didn’t (and still don’t) want to be creating more waste. We’ve since moved on to shipping goods out in recycled packets.

Marketing is key. When you’re not marketing your goods, you’re not seen to be active. Just by talking about your business, you’ll get interest in your product and make sales. Our buzz came from regular competitions and launches of new shirts. With every new shirt we’d let our mailing list, community and followers know of its arrival.

Finally, a word on branding. I constantly wrestle with wether we would have been better off branding ourselves first and foremost a t-shirt design company, rather than a Fairtrade one. I think the answer is yes. Our whole ethos was originally based around the lack of well designed Fairtrade shirts. Ultimately, if a design looks good, a customer is going to be happy paying a little more if it’s what they want. The ethical aspect of the cotton is, in their mind, a bonus. But if they’re not even visiting your site or stall because they see you first and foremost as an ethical brand, and that doesn’t entirely float their boat, then you’ve lost a sale.

The whole experience of running Fair & Bare has been a bit of a roller coaster of highs and lows. I’ve learned so much from running it and hope to continue to do so.

It wouldn’t be right of me to post about Fair & Bare here without letting my readers in on a special offer. For this Easter weekend, when you buy two shirts, you’ll get the third free on using the code “EASTEREGG” when checking out.

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