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Eddie Bauer: Going Green, Staying Sweat Shop

It's Not Easy Being Green

Jonathan Tasini

September 23, 2004
You can't separate a company's environmental policies from its labor policies, says Jonathan Tasini. Eddie Bauer, which has a new marketing campaign to support environmental education, is in partnership with two major anti-union companies. And how green can your favorite product be, really, when a worker in Taiwan was paid $1 a day to make it?

Jonathan Tasini is president of the Economic Future Group and writes his "Working In America" columns for TomPaine.com on an occasional basis.

I m sure it wasn t Eddie Bauer s intention to be the poster child for searing liberal hypocrisy, but there it is, all laid out in living color in The New Yorker, Wired, Vogue and the rest of the flagship magazines owned by Conde Nast. In a six-page, full color insert, adorned with celebrities like Daryl Hannah and Rob Lowe pictured outdoors wearing company clothing, Bauer trumpets the arrival of Fashion Planet, declaring Here s a fashion tip think green. Along with each celebrity s photo and the environmental message they espouse comes a breakdown of the cost of the clothes they are wearing. Hey, America, you can look stylish AND save the earth if you reduce, reuse, recycle&and shop.

What the reader doesn t see is the true cost of those clothes. If you walk into a Eddie Bauer store, which I did a few days ago, you learn pretty quickly that it s the same old story: clothes made by sweatshop labor. A vest made in Vietnam goes for $60, shirts from Taiwan will set you back $45 or a V-neck jersey manufactured in Sri Lanka can be had for $40. And if Made in China (where the average wage is 40 cents an hour and two-thirds of the people live on less than one dollar a day) is more your style, you can pick up a parka for $148 or a suede jacket for $198.

Beyond Labels

Workers in these factories are often subjected to uncontrolled chemical exposures, high noise and temperature levels, unguarded machinery and other safety hazards, according to the Berkeley-based Maquiladora Health and Safety Support Network. For more information on labor conditions in China and other countries, check out the National Labor Committee.

If Eddie Bauer gets its customers to recycle more, that s great. But that green message shouldn t shield the company from attacks about sweatshop labor producing its clothes. The fact is, companies know that proclaiming social responsibility is good for business. A recent survey by corporate consulting firm APCO Worldwide found that 70 percent of consumers surveyed make purchases based on a company s socially responsible image. That consumers reward companies who they believe are good citizens is encouraging. What s deplorable is how companies exploit consumers interest in supporting socially responsible companies. Instead of assessing their labor or environmental practices, they invest money in slick marketing campaigns.

The hypocrisy embodied in these ads, in my view, is fairly common and historic: People who see themselves as good liberals and want to embrace a healthy environment pay no attention to, turn a blind eye to, or even worse condone, the enslavement of workers and, in its more explicit form, anti-unionism. Rich people write six-figure checks to the Democratic Party but have no compunction attacking unions, either in a social setting or in their business dealings.

Pro-Union Is Pro-Environment

It gets even more slippery. Eddie Bauer s ad campaign is aimed at raising funds for the Environmental Media Association, which says, on its website, that it, mobilizes the entertainment industry in a global effort to educate people about environmental issues and inspire them into action. But, according to its website, EMA is supported by at least two companies that are strongly anti-union: Toyota and Whole Foods.

After conducting a campaign of terror against workers trying to unionize in Kentucky, Toyota was forced to post a notice saying it would respect the rights of workers to organize. One worker was fired for coughing too much at a mandatory anti-union company meeting his personnel record noted that he was an avid United Auto Workers supporter. And, even though they work essentially a full-time day, up to 1,000 Toyota workers (about 15 percent) of the people who labor at the company s non-union Kentucky assembly plant are temporary workers, paid a lot less than permanent full-time employees. And, to further underscore the hypocrisy, how do EMA and Eddie Bauer justify giving green cover to a company whose entire new U.S. production capacity is devoted to full-size pickup trucks (for example, the Tundra, with its all-new, more powerful V-8 engine)?

Whole Foods layers its anti-unionism with the veneer of organic, sweet-talking, higher-consciousness malarkey: Our philosophy is to satisfy and delight our customers and to support team member excellence and happiness, the company s website promises. But the fact is, each time workers have tried to form a union, Whole Foods has responded quite harshly (for details, see www.wholeworkersunite.org ). And, in a small bit of self-interested advocacy, I cannot fail to point out that Conde Nast leads the magazine publishing industry in forcing its creative workers to sign atrocious contracts that seize all rights from its workers.

Though it was always true, it is even more clear in today s world that you can t be pro-environment and anti-union. We can never have a safe global environment in which workers aren t treated with respect and dignity on the job. The corporate system that must pollute the water, air and the earth to make its profits is the same corporate system that pockets money by suppressing wages (while giving large pay and benefits to top executives) and making sure no one has a fair chance to form a union.

I don t mean that in a conspiratorial way. It s simply the case that, as writers such as Paul Hawken have pointed out, we exist in a world of commerce where the wasteful use of our natural resources that degrades the environment is the same world of commerce that lays waste to its workers. As long as you have companies willing to exploit people in China not only by paying them despicable wages but putting them in inhumane working conditions, forcing them to breathe poor air and drink dirty water, or poisoning their surrounding communities you will have companies who trash the environment.

It is not impossible to merge the idea of a clean environment with the goal of ensuring that workers get paid fairly and, at the same time, don t risk their lives once they go to work. The Apollo Alliance, for example, has built an impressive green-labor coalition around an idea that is gathering steam: a crash program to invest $300 billion to achieve energy independence by jump-starting an alternative energy industry and environmentally sound transportation systems, all of which would provide good-paying jobs. The project estimates that it will create well over 3 million high-wage jobs in construction, manufacturing, and industrial machinery by 2015, building new and efficient infrastructure and accelerating the next generation of cutting edge technology. Those jobs will pour $95 billion back into the economy through new income, and $330 billion in additional economic output, and help provide needed assistance to state and local governments.

Now that s a hip statement worth getting behind.