Performance Meets Sustainability: Fairtrade Soccer Balls

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Over 270 million people are involved in soccer—or football, as it’s known in most countries. When you factor in occasional players, kids leagues, and spectators, you’ve got the world’s favourite sport, hands down. This kind of popularity demands more than just a few balls. 

As the founder of VOLO Athletics, a Fairtrade soccer ball distributor based in BC, James Milligan knows a thing or two about soccer balls. A small upstart in an industry dominated by heavyweights and big names, VOLO must exceed consumer expectations. “We don’t have the brand recognition of Nike or Adidas. So our balls have to speak for themselves.”

For that reason, Milligan specializes in offering quality balls at a mid-range price level. Most consumers won’t buy an expensive ball from an unknown brand, and while fair trade products are often competitively priced, they’re not usually the cheapest option. Milligan reports being shocked by rock-bottom prices of some conventional balls. “When a soccer ball is sold for $8, you have to wonder who’s paying the price. If retail markup is approximately double, this means that the cost of materials, labour, and shipping is about $4. This is not sustainable.”

While VOLO balls cost more than the low-quality machine-stitched ones you might find at a big-box store, those extra dollars get you a well-made ball, hand stitched for durability and designed to meet the performance standards of FIFA, the governing body for soccer around the world. They’re also handmade in Sialkot, Pakistan, on Fairtrade terms. 

TegaHistorically, Sialkot was known as the soccer ball capital of the world, producing up to 85 percent of the world’s supply at its peak. When a series of media reports in the mid-1990s revealed the use of child labour in Sialkot’s sports ball industry, the city became the epicentre of a major labour reform. The International Labour Organization, together with UNICEF and Sialkot Chamber of Commerce and Industry, entered into the Atlanta Agreement, which intended to improve working conditions and eliminate child labour in Sialkot’s sports ball industry. The agreement made progress, but child labour has not yet been fully abolished, and poor working conditions are still endemic at factories located outside the region, in countries like China, India, and Thailand, where many lower quality soccer balls are made. 

While the Fairtrade Mark ensures the sustainability of each VOLO soccer ball, those who play with them can vouch for their quality. Milligan has created branded balls for non-profits, special events, and soccer leagues. VOLO also supplies balls to Dasovic-Neil Coaching, a soccer training and development service run by Canadian Soccer Hall of Famers Andrea Neil and Nick Dasovic, whose high standards and interest in using sustainable products led to a partnership with VOLO. With their input, Milligan tweaked the designs to meet their requirements for training and practice sessions. As Neil puts it, “We chose VOLO over other products because of the company’s commitment to ethics and the well-being of the people involved in production.” 

Milligan pays for his orders upfront, and the factory workers earn a consistent wage, independent of demand or market factors. When it comes to sports ball producers, Fairtrade standards require that workers are paid at least minimum wage as well as a premium. These premiums are used to fund basic health insurance, a subsidized grocery store, worker transportation, water purification systems, and daycare facilities.

This summer, as the 2018 World Cup unfolds and we look forward to Canada co-hosting the 2026 tournament, the urge might strike to pick up a shiny new soccer ball. If it does, consider choosing a Fairtade-certified soccer ball. Fairtrade certification is vital in assuring accountability and transparency in the industry. When you buy Fairtrade, you can be confident that your soccer ball was made without child labour, in safe conditions where workers are paid a living wage.


Author: Kimberly Leung is a Toronto-based freelance writer with a special interest in sustainable and ethical living.

Originally published in Fair Trade Magazine - Summer/Fall 2018 Edition