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Fair-trade Fashion: An Islamic Perspective on Ethical Shopping

Arwa Aburawa looks into the fair-trade movement and why Muslims should support initiatives which guarantee decent working conditions and a living wage to vulnerable workers.

Islam is a religion for the world in all its aspects – its politics, its social conflicts as well as its economic aspects. Islam doesn’t see the world as an ungodly place that the faithful must separate themselves from. Muslims must live and interact with all the complexities of life. And Islam provides a guide to navigate us through these complexities. As such, Islam provides us with clear indicators of the kind of trade that is acceptable and halal, and that which must be avoided.


The history of Islam is peppered with examples of trade and business interactions. The people of Makkah were traders and the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) was himself a successful trader who built a reputation as ‘the Trustworthy’ through his work. Consequently, commerce isn’t seen as something separate from your social or religious life – rather it is an extension of it. Islam obliges buyers, sellers and consumers to act fairly and with honesty and to treat workers with dignity and respect. A hadith reported by Bukhari recalls that the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) said, “Allah shows mercy to a man who is kind when he sells, when he buys and when he makes a claim.”


Since the fair-trade movement is also concerned with justice for the sellers and workers in an increasingly unfair economic environment, it makes sense that Muslims support it. Central to fair-trade principles is a recognition that current buyer and seller relationships are hugely unequal with buyers in rich countries dictating low prices to poor farmers in the developing world. As such, fair-trade seeks to re-address that inequality by guaranteeing producers a fair price and longer-term contracts which gives much needed security and stability to the farmers.


This stability means that farmers can invest in their own communities, in protecting the environment and developing the necessary skills to compete in a global market. It also allows health and education centres to be built and women’s programmes to be run – these have so far benefited an estimated five million people. Indeed, the fair-trade market is slowly growing (€3.4bn estimated global sales in 2009) and the Muslim community is playing a role in that. From fair-trade Muslim cafes in the UK, co-operatives selling coffee in Uganda to online fair-trade fashion retailers, the Muslim community is taking a leap of faith in fair-trade.


Urban Ummah, a fashion clothing venture launched by couple of friends in the UK, uses only fair-trade organic cotton T-shirts and they print their designs using environmentally friendly methods. “The international perception is that Muslims don’t care about the environment or ethical issues,” they say on their website. “Are they right? Yes they are! … We are becoming a nation of people out to save every penny and get value for money at anyone’s expense. Yes, buying organic products can be slightly more expensive, but it is like this for good reasons.”


“If we switch to a few organic products on our shopping lists instead of the usual rubbish we subject our bodies to, perhaps we can make a real difference to someone’s life.


If we switch to fair-trade, we can continue the support for a better wage in poorer nations. Becoming fair-trade, organic, ethical and environmental, is all expected of a Muslim, so please give a damn!” – Urban Ummah


Other online Muslim retailers are also embracing fair-trade and organic clothing. Artizara sell a selection of fair-trade hijabs made in India and Shukr, an online Islamic and modest clothing store, also state that their clothing is ethically produced in sweatshop-free premises. You can also support Palestinian workers through Canaan Fairtrade and Zaytoun which both sell organic and fair-trade olive oil, olives and dates amongst other products.


Anas Sillwood who is managing director at Shukr explains: “In the Holy Qur’an, it is mentioned that ‘God loves those who are fair and just’ (Al-Hujurat:9) and the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) forbade unfair economic practices that led to monopolization or unfair market advantage. Islam’s emphasis on fairness and justice also spills over into a concern for fulfilling workers’ rights, which is one of the main goals of the fair-trade movement. The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, famously said that the worker should be paid his wages before his sweat dries…”


Indeed, the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) said: “Your brothers are your responsibility. Allah has made them under your hands. So whosoever has a brother under his hand, let him give him food as he eats and dress as he dresses. Do not give them work that will overburden them and if you do give them such a task then provide them with assistance” (Bukhari). As such, the living wage and decent working conditions that the fair-trade movement advocates corresponds with the Islamic code of fairness in trade and work.


As for environmental sustainability – another important aspect of fair-trade – Islamic teachings tell us time and time again that God has given humans the trust of stewardship over this earth. A sacred trust that we are accountable to God for. The Prophet (SAW) said that “The world is beautiful and verdant, and verily God, be He exalted, has made you His stewards in it, and He sees how you acquit yourselves” (Muslim). Therefore, following the trade ethos set out by Islamic teachings no doubt leads us down a path of fair-trade and ethical trading.


And every time you choose fair-trade, you give disadvantaged farmers and workers a fair price, better wages and working conditions, plus a little extra to invest in a stronger future for their communities. Now surely that is something we can all buy into?


Arwa Aburawa is a freelance journalist based in the UK who writes on the Middle East, the environment and various social issues. Arwa is also the eco-Islam affairs editor at Green Prophet, the leading news site on environmental issues in the Middle East.