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Socially Responsible Garment Companies Take on Nike and theSweatshop Giants

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SOURCE
http://www.newtopiamagazine.net/content/issue18/features/sweatshops.php

Sweat Free

by Abby Sewell / Newtopia Magazine / Issue 18

In the wake of the '90s anti-sweatshop campaigns, a new brand of capitalist has appeared on the garment industry scene, promoting a kinder, gentler form of the corporate order. The four biggest names in the game: the Blackspot sneaker
(www.blackspotsneaker.org/home.html) being marketed by the makers of Adbusters magazine, the No Sweat clothing line (www.nosweatapparel.com), the now defunct SweatX collective (www.sweatx.net) and American Apparel (www.americanapparelstore.com), all have their own philosophies of production, with a varying mix of ideological and entrepreneurial motives for their existence. Into the odd, interconnected world of the conscientious clothing manufacture, I ventured rather skeptically, having doubts myself about the power of conscious consumers to change the world. I emerged, still slightly doubtful, but with a genuine appreciation for the hard work done by these activists and entrepreneurs.

The sweat-frees vs. the Nike Empire:

Nike is the proclaimed enemy of at least the No Sweat and Blackspot sneaker crews. Their issue with Nike is that the company keeps its profits high by subcontracting its production to the lowest-wage countries in the world and then failing to pay its workers a fair wage or concern itself about the working conditions in the factories. Although the company has begun to take steps towards improving its labor policies, the head of Nike's Corporate Responsibility department, Lee Weinstein admitted, "We're looking at worker health and safety issues, but very much in the beginning phase."

Much to the chagrin of the fashion-conscious activist crowd, the formerly U.S. union-made, lowbrow standby Converse was bought out by Nike in July 2003 ("Nike sneaks into retro style with Converse buy," The Portland Tribune, July 11, 2003. http://www.portlandtribune.com/archview.cgi?id=19128).
In response, both No Sweat and Adbusters decided to model their sneaker lines after the classic Converse design. By re-appropriating the design, the No Sweat and Blackspot sneaker manufacturers hoped to not only make a political statement, but also to secure themselves a market niche with the politically conscious young hipsters who will refuse to support a Converse sneaker owned by Phil Knight.

Adam Neiman, CEO of the No Sweat company, made the trek out to Nike's headquarters in Beaverton, OR in May 2004 to challenge the apparel giants directly. He was announcing the release of his sweat-free sneaker, produced in a unionized factory in Indonesia. In his visit to Nike, he was challenging them to follow No Sweat's lead and include a "labor disclosure form" with each set of shoes they sell, detailing the wages and benefits received by the lowest-paid worker in the factory where they were manufactured.

Caitlin Morse, Nike's head of Global Issues, with whom Neiman met, pointed out, rather self-incriminatingly, that it would not be feasible for Nike to include a labor disclosure form with their products, as they have contracts with 900 factories around the world and can hardly keep track of the labor conditions in all of them at once. At this point, she said, they conduct a review of about one third of their factories each year. However, Neiman is hoping that if No Sweat continues to grow – and it turned a fifteen percent profit last year – Nike will eventually follow his lead by tracking and publicizing their labor practices across the board.

"I'm challenging Nike, because they're the leader of the industry," Neiman said, "and I think they're leading the industry in the wrong direction."

The people behind the Blackspot sneaker have a more ambitious goal. They do not want to simply change Nike's labor practices – they want to destroy the corporation and its mass promotion of brand consciousness in America.

"For the past ten years, I've been tousling with Nike and Phil Knight for all his dirty deeds in the dirty world, and after he started cleaning that up, he started creating this corporate pseudo-cool," said Kalle Lasn, editor of Adbusters. In an attempt to counter Knight's influence, the Adbusters crew decided to "think outside the lefty box" and create their own brand of sneaker, manufactured under fair labor conditions.

The fact that the Blackspot and the No Sweat sneaker look so similar in design and intent is no accident. In fact, when the Adbusters team first came up with the idea of releasing their own "un-brand"of sweat-free sneakers, Neiman worked as a contractor for them, seeking out unionized factories in Asia that might be used for production. With Lasn being unsatisfied with his findings and impatient with the time the search was taking, Adbusters and Neiman parted ways, but Neiman took the opportunity to launch his own sweat-free sneaker brand out of one of the factories that Adbusters had looked at and rejected.

Aside from the breakdown of business relations between himself and Neiman, Kalle Lasn said, "I think it's great that we're not the only ones giving Phil Knight grief."

Having finally found a factory outside of North America that met their labor and quality standards, Blackspot is ready to begin production this fall. The factory in question is a unionized, family-run operation in Portugal.

Outsourcing:

The question that immediately comes up regarding any sort of "sweat free" manufacturing operation based out of a developed Western country is should the production be done at home, or should it be outsourced? Some people, like Lasn, will argue that the developing countries need the jobs more, and as long as the workers get good pay, benefits and collective bargaining rights, there is nothing wrong with outsourcing. North America already has a high standard of living, he told me, so why base a factory here?

Adam Neiman, for his part, sings the praises of North American manufacturers, but for practical reasons he says, "Outsourcing works in apparel because it allows a brand to expand and contract production without increasing the fixed costs. There's no way to get rid of subcontracting. The question is how you do it in an ethical fashion."

Others would disagree with this. American Apparel, based out of Los Angeles, is one of the highest paying manufacturing operations in the world, with hefty benefits for all its workers as well. Nevertheless, CEO Dov Charney has gotten grief from the left for failing to endorse a union in his factory. Perhaps because of this, Charney gets prickly at being lumped in the same category as the other "sweat free" operations. In his opinion, there are plenty of clothing brands that are sweat free but do not get recognition for it, because they do not actively advertise themselves as such.

On the issue of outsourcing production, Charney points out that the costs of fuel involved in basing production thousands of miles from the company headquarters make it unsustainable in the long run. Furthermore, from his own previous experience subcontracting to a factory in Mexico, he believes that it is impossible for the head of a company to really know what the conditions of production are when his manufacturing is based out of the country.

"The factory was unionized in Mexico, but the workers were getting paid shit anyway," Charney said. "It was inefficient. I wasn't interested in driving to Mexico every week, simply so I could pay workers one dollar an hour."

He went on to say, "[No Sweat and the Blackspot] are still paying wages that are sub to wages in the United States. It's a fallacy that in the Third World the cost of living is so much cheaper. Let's examine living conditions. Where do people live? What are the schools like? I live in my workers' neighborhood, so I know."

The SweatX founders, like Neiman and Lasn, had originally planned to open a sweat-free factory in the Third World. However, when Manou Vazei, a former American Apparel employee with years of experience in the industry, joined the SweatX board of directors, he alerted them to the abysmal working conditions in many factories within the U.S.

"There's a Third World in our own backyard," Vazei said. "I told them, first let's clean up Los Angeles."

Like Neiman, Vazei said he sees no moral problem with outsourcing, as long as the workers get paid well and treated decently. However, he believes that a company needs to take responsibility for the labor conditions in the places it subcontracts to. This is difficult and time consuming.

"I used to pay extra to my managers in Mexico so they could pay the workers more," he said. "Then I would go down there to check things out, and the manager would have bought himself a new Suburban and his son a new Suburban instead."

Philosophies of production:

One attitude that is common to Neiman, Lasn and Charney is their rejection of the "old left," which they see as defeatist, self-hating and lacking in sex appeal. None of them, not even Lasn, is blatantly anti-capitalist. Charney is an unabashed capitalist who stumbled across his philosophy on labor, like Henry Ford, in an effort to maximize productivity. No Sweat's Neiman, for his part, is hoping to change the way the garment industry is run from the inside, while turning a little profit in the process.

"Capitalism is not a coercive system, it's a seductive system," he said. "We can either be controlled by capitalism or we can control it, but we can't kill it." His goal, he says, is to see fifty percent of the garment industry unionized in the next ten years. He believes that he will only be able to achieve this if he can seduce consumers away from companies like Nike, thus prompting the giants of the apparel industry to jump on the union train.

As far as the Blackspot sneaker is concerned, "We're selling an idea – for us the idea is the dominant thing. We're sick and tired of large corporations dominating our lives," Lasn said. The goal of the Blackspot venture, he said is "to show that a small number of people like us can launch a grassroots business venture, to create a more grassroots kind of capitalism."

Despite having gotten flack from the left for creating his own brand and his own corporation after riding the anti-corporate wave for years, Lasn says he is attempting to subvert the concept of the corporation. If the Blackspot sneaker is successful, he intends to look into opening a cooperatively run factory in Asia. Another proposal that has been bouncing around is the idea of giving a share in the Blackspot venture to each consumer who buys a pair of shoes.

"At this moment we're just trying to run a business, just trying not to lose our shirt…then we'll start thinking more about the anti-corporation. Do we actually want to sell one share to everybody? To do it so legally right is actually very hard," he said.

The matter of not losing one's shirt is not so easy either, as the founders of the SweatX company discovered. The enterprise was begun with capital from the Hot Fudge Social Venture Fund, the project of Ben & Jerry's Ben Cohen. Its basic premise was to level the worker-management gap as much as possible, by running the company collectively and instating a stipulation that the management could make no more than eight times the wage of the lowest paid production worker. In practice, none of the production workers bought into the collective because the enterprise never became profitable. The board of directors did not want to make the lowest-paid workers financially liable if the company failed, and so only the managers bought in.

According to Vaezi, part of the problem was that the labor unions SweatX had expected to make up a major part of its business actually did relatively little for the company. While a few unions, like the UTLA (United Teachers of Los Angeles) consistently supported SweatX, many of the others made small, token orders to show their moral support and then went on to buy the majority of their shirts from overseas manufacturers for a lower price.

Another problem was that most of the board members at SweatX had no manufacturing experience. They were idealists and academics rather than businessmen and this led to financial difficulties. On the other hand, some aspects of SweatX worked well, Vaezi said, especially the weekly meetings between workers and management, in which both sides could air any problems they were having and work them out together.

In the end:

The left always has a hard time balancing between idealism and practicality. The lovely anti-globalization cliché "be the change you want to see happen" runs into all sorts of problems with the world that is already in place. Trying to change the world through a business venture is especially precarious. In order to become successful enough to make a difference, the venture requires people with hard-nosed, nasty capitalist business sense. By the time it becomes successful enough to have an effect, the people in charge risk becoming to disconnected from the ideals they started with. The question is: how do you take the corporate empire down without becoming the empire yourself?

Of course, not everyone involved in the sweat free industry is even interested in taking the corporate empire down. American Apparel would happily replace Nike at the top of the corporate food chain. Neiman is simply trying to reform the industry. And Adbusters, too, wants to grow and make money—money to be used for a political agenda, but money nevertheless.

In the mean time, while idealistic entrepreneurs bicker, a few more factory workers are getting paid a living wage.

Abby Sewell is a freelance journalist and worker/owner at a collectively run café in Portland, OR.