#02 Business
Eva-Maria Verfürth

Tudo Bom – Fair Fashion from Brazil

They are chic, colourful and put a smile on the wearer's face: the Paris Tudo Bom fashion label's clothes. At least this is how the founders of this small company based on a very unique business concept see it. Tudo Bom clothing is designed to make both consumers and its Brazilian producers happy. This is fair trade to wear, not to eat, eco clothes without a woolly pullover in sight. Eva-Maria Verfürth talked to Thomas Favennec, the co-founder of Tudo Bom.

You're not even 30 years old and already the co-founder of a company. How did that happen?

I joined forces with Jérôme Schatzmann, the project's initiator. We believe in the idea of social entrepreneurship. The social entrepreneur wants to drive development through entrepreneurial action. For us this means implementing social and ecological standards for every step in the production chain – for cotton production, cloth manufacturing and the sewing process.

What are the standards that limit poverty and damage to the environment in cotton production, for example?

We work with smaller producers, generally family-owned businesses that are either already producing organic cotton or switching to organic production, meaning they use no pesticides. We conclude contracts with the farmers, setting a fair price for their goods and the amount we want to purchase ahead of time. So they know that they will have a stable income over the next few months and can make investments, for example. We also create partnerships with non-governmental organisations that provide farmers with technical support in switching to organic farming methods. Since there is a lot of wild urbanization in Brazil, it is very important to retain jobs in rural areas.

How is a "fair" price defined?

In a neoliberal economic system, the price is set by supply and demand. In the textile industry supply is high and demand is relatively low, which is why production prices have dropped. Our prices, however, are determined by actual production costs. They are defined by the amount of time that goes into production.

You don't work with small producers in cloth production though. Why not?

Because there are no small producers in this area. When manufacturing cloth, first the seeds are removed from the cotton fibres. These are then spun into the thread used to weave the cloth. Each of these steps requires huge machines only large companies have. We choose firms that are especially socially and ecologically responsible though; they respect the labour rights of their employees and uphold ecological standards. We then have our clothes sewn by disadvantaged seamstresses.

These small, disadvantaged seamstresses are surely not that easy to find.

Thousands of small groups of seamstresses work in Petrópolis close to Rio. They are often very poorly paid and cannot tell ahead of time if they will have enough clients in the coming week. They have practically no access to credit services. Moneylenders on the streets charge between 10 and 20 percent interest per month – that adds up to 300% interest in a year! We try to support the independence of these disadvantaged groups of women by commissioning them with our production. The seamstresses need to deliver good work though too.

So the criteria you apply when looking for seamstresses are poverty and skill?

Yes, you could say that. This is one of the greatest challenges facing fair trade: You always need to find a way to fulfil an ambitious social mission – using economic means to fight poverty – while at the same time guaranteeing high-quality production. We conclude annual contracts with our seamstresses too and set fair prices for every item of clothing. This financial security allows them to hire helpers, for example, or lease business premises. And they have the opportunity to pay into the governmental social security system which they usually wouldn't be able to as informal workers.

You know all your producers in Brazil personally. How has a contract with Tudo Bom changed these people's lives?

This is where Tudo Bom fundamentally differs from other fair trade firms. There is a face behind each and every item of clothing we produce. Cotton farmer Valdecir, for example, has switched to organic production and doesn't need to use any more dangerous chemicals. This is good for his health. Many small producers in his region have had to sell their land to large firms and emigrate. Thanks to ethical cotton production, Valdecir can hold on to his land. His sons, who have worked in Portugal for two years now, can return home and farm their own land. Seamstresses Fatima and Maria work from home where they live in 35 square meters with eight people. One is divorced and solely responsible for her children and sick father. She used to be paid very poorly by her clients. Now her income is enough to feed the whole family.

Are these personal relationships the only way you control the quality of your production standards?

No. We also deal with external certifiers. We are certified by the French Fairplanète Company and the Brazilian NRO Onda Solidaria and are currently in negotiations for the FLO certification (Transfair in Germany). But certifications are pretty much a formality for us, since we did not wait to get certified to begin practicing fair trade. We do it because it is important to us. But of course we have to convince our customers of our mission, and we need to be certified to do that.

Tudo Bom clothing is more expensive than that of the large clothing companies, but not by all that much. How can you sell your fashion for these prices?

Keeping our prices low is not easy. Brazil is a relatively expensive production country. Fair wages here have to be higher than in India, for example. We try to cover our costs by expanding our production range. We sell t-shirts for around 25 euros, which is relatively inexpensive. Our jackets and trousers, which are more complicated to sew, cost a bit more.

What is your relationship to other fair trade labels?

We work very well with most of them. The fair trade companies are not our real competitors; these are the large clothing manufacturers.

Do you feel manufacturers or consumers bear more responsibility for creating a fair global economy?

Most large companies are very rational entities; they work to maximise profit. When they see a niche in the market, they fill it. This is why I very firmly believe in the responsibility of consumers and civil society groups. They set trends and pretty much determine if there is a market for a product. I also feel that pioneers in business – which is what I would call us – play an important role. While our influence on the global economy through the products we sell is small, we still influence the large companies by acting as a role model.

Fair trade is often criticised for the fact that it will ultimately remain a market niche and cannot influence the overriding structures.

Fair trade is already having a strong influence on large companies. Many of them are now also pursuing a policy of social responsibility. Now that social standards are growing increasingly popular though, I also see a potential risk of these standards being lowered. Firms that act rationality are not truly interested in the producers themselves. They simply want to exploit this market niche. So they try to have their production certified as "fair", but want to keep costs as low as possible. Despite all the criticism though, we do not want to condemn them. The have the right to be large companies and think in terms of profit.

Interview by Eva-Maria Verfürth