Clothing Firm Adopts Non-Sweatshop
Concept It hopes to stay competitive and turn a profit.
By NANCY CLEELAND
TIMES STAFF WRITER
LA TIMES, April
Ice cream mogul turned social
activist Ben Cohen is out to prove it's possible to make clothes with
a conscience in Los Angeles, a city maligned by some as
the nation's sweatshop capital.
His hopes are taking form in
a bland warehouse set on an aging industrial strip just south of the city
center. There a few dozen true believers bustle about with samples of
SweatX, the brand of casual clothing they hope to market to college bookstores
and high-end sports shops.
The enterprise is run by a
former banker who took a 50% pay cut and is staffed by veteran garment
workers who can hardly believe their luck at landing an $8.50-an-hour
job, with benefits, a pension and profit-sharing. Backed with $1.5 million
from Cohen's Hot Fudge Social Venture Fund, the business--which officially
opens today--is aiming to show a profit within a year. More significantly,
SweatX plans to raise consumer awareness of working conditions in garment
shops while proving to other manufacturers that it's possible to pay a
"living" wage and still earn a profit, say those involved in
"We aim to put the lie
to the myth that it's impossible to produce clothing at a competitive
price and have a good quality of work life," said Cohen, co-founder
of Ben & Jerry's Homemade Inc., by telephone from his home base in
Vermont. "Will we succeed? All I can say is, we'll see."
Although most clothing makers
insist that they treat workers well, few have marketed themselves that
And the evidence is against
them in Los Angeles, where state and federal inspectors
frequently find violations of wage, hour and safety laws at work sites.
An estimated 140,000 production
workers are employed in the Los Angeles garment business, most at
small contract shops that churn out orders for manufacturers and retailers
at slim profit margins.
"The whole industry is
based on the fact that workers are not paid properly," says Kimi
Lee, director of the nonprofit Garment Workers Center in downtown Los Angeles. "Hopefully, SweatX will
be a successful business and a good example, but they'll be competing
against every factory that's not doing things the right way."
Many in the industry are watching
skeptically, including Ilse Metchek, director of the California Fashion
Assn. "I welcome them to the community. I think what they're trying
is wonderful. But it's not proven yet," Metchek said.
She noted that the production
of basic apparel--including sweatshirts, jeans and undergarments--generally
has moved to Mexico, China and other countries where
labor is cheaper, leaving Los Angeles with trendy fashion wear that
requires a quick turnaround.
She questioned whether shoppers
will be willing to pay a premium for a T-shirt just because the worker
who made it was paid and treated well.
"Students protest. They
yell and scream. But when push comes to shove, they go to Wal-Mart and
buy clothing made in Saipan," Metchek said.
TeamX, the managers and unionized
factory workers behind the new label, are betting otherwise.
They say that growing anti-sweatshop
activism on campuses across the country proves there's a willing market
and profess amazement that no one has tried to fill it.
"There are people out
there who believe in the message," said Doug Waterman, a commercial
banker for 32 years and now SweatX's president and chief financial officer.
"Are there enough to make this a successful business venture? That's
the big gamble."
Waterman said SweatX will produce
clothing at the high end of the casual market, using fabrics such as hemp
blends and organic cottons and designs that incorporate hip slogans with
a social bent. And because production workers are organized under UNITE,
the garment union, the brand hopes to be a major supplier for labor unions
The company hopes to keep the
labor premium under $1 per garment by boosting production and shaving
For instance, the company said
it has eliminated middlemen such as labor contractors by directly employing
those involved in production, from designers to packagers.
The Hot Fudge investment will
enable the company to buy state-of-the-art equipment, including air-driven
sewing machines and a completely automated $200,000 computerized cutting
machine. SweatX intends to repay that investment interest, Waterman said.
Perhaps most important, he
said, the company will benefit from high productivity because all workers,
from sewing machine operators to sales staff, will be part-owners of the
Parity is built into the labor-management
compact: No manager can earn more than eight times the pay of the lowest-paid
production worker, Waterman said.
Only 20 production workers
are now employed, but Waterman said he hopes that figure will be up to
80 within a year.
Eventually, he said, the company
may expand vertically, to include embroidery on one end and fabric making
on the other.
With only a few weeks on the
job producing samples, several sewing machine operators said the job seemed
too good to be true.
"I've been working in
clothing for 20 years, and I never had a paid holiday before this,"
said Ana Acevedo, a Salvadoran immigrant whose highest-paying job before
this was $7.25 per hour. "My last job paid cash. Sometimes less than
Several other employees ran
their own subcontracting businesses, squeezing by each month with the
threat of bankruptcy hanging over their heads.
Leo Contreras, who worked as
a contractor for 10 years, suffered a series of setbacks, including nonpayment
from several contractors, before finally going broke last year. He recalled
instances of paying his employees with sewing machines.