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Sweatshop Free Clothing Industry Growing in the U.S.

The New York Times
The Goal: 'Sweatshop Free.' The Problem: Defining It

By LINDA BAKER
Published: December 14, 2003

SHOPPERS buy vegetables that are grown without pesticides and order
cappuccinos that promise a greater share of profits for the coffee
harvester. But can that concern for the means of production translate into
the way people buy clothing?

Since the beginning of 2002, three companies have been set up that promote
their apparel as sweatshop free, on the assumption that tales of exhausted,
underpaid workers making shirts and pants are repellent to many shoppers.
But defining "sweatshop free" is not simple. Although there is talk of
adopting industry wide standards, the solution now being used by companies
that define themselves as sweatshop free is transparent production, which
means making it clear where clothing is made, and how.

NoSweatApparel.com of Newton, Mass., does that by listing the names of the
factories it uses and by using only unionized workers. The company was
started by Adam Neiman, president of the Rosebud Roofing Company, and Jeff
Ballinger, the author of a 1993 article in Harper's magazine that examined
Nike's labor practices.

Another company, American Apparel, based in Los Angeles, does it by
including in its catalog a photographic essay of immigrant sewers and
cutters at work. The company, five years old, now has all of its production
in the United States. After moving a factory from Mexico to Los Angeles two
years ago, the company began promoting its T-shirts as sweatshop free.
And TeamX, a Los Angeles sewing cooperative in Los Angeles that makes the
SweatX line of casual apparel, does it by hiring only union workers, who
will receive a share of company profits. The company was started last year
with advice from Harvard professors and money from the Hot Fudge Venture
fund, a venture capital group started by Ben Cohen and other former
executives at Ben & Jerry's Homemade Inc.

More transparency is not just a way to lure shoppers who care about
sweatshops, the companies' executives say. It is also good for business.
"We're saying we're more competitive than the sweatshop," said Dov Charney,
the founder of American Apparel. The average hourly wage for the company's
workers was $12.29 recently; the minimum is $9.

The company mantra is "vertical integration," whereby designers, marketers,
cutters, sewers and knitters all work together in the same building - in
this case, a huge pink factory that was once a rail depot. Combining all
aspects of company operations under one roof, said Mr. Charney, reduces
costs and improves quality control. In Mexico, he said, he faced continuing
production problems, including faulty phone lines and inadequate sewing
needles.

"It wasn't a feel-good and it wasn't viable," he said. "You think it makes
you proud to pay someone $40 a week to make shirts all day?" Mr. Charney
asked. "I spend $40 on a drink.''
According to the Garment Workers Center of Los Angeles, an advocacy group,
the factory conditions at American Apparel are one of the few positive
examples for the city's garment industry, which employs about 160,000
workers to cut and sew.

But Mr. Charney is not universally adored. The company does not provide
retirement benefits or paid sick days and holidays, something Mr. Charney
said he intends to change. Last month, in a filing with the National Labor
Relations Board, the Union of Needlework, Industrial and Textile Employees
accused American Apparel of obstructing efforts by the union to organize the
workers in September.

The accusations have no basis, Mr. Charney said. "More importantly," he
said, "they're a deliberate distraction from the fact that the union was so
overwhelmingly unpopular with the workers."

For Mr. Neiman of NoSweatApparel.com, the use of union workers is more
important than having an enlightened boss. "In my opinion, one good boss is
no more a solution to the problem of wage slavery than one good plantation
owner was a solution to human slavery," he said.

Just as large clothing manufacturers do, NoSweat outsources production. But
it does so only to union shops in the United States and Canada. "Where we
stand out," he said, "is by reclaiming the union label as the ultimate
standard for sweatshop-free apparel."

That strategy, however, may have drawbacks. "We live in a country where
there's only 11 percent unionization," said Paul Rice, chief executive of
TransFair USA, which certifies coffee as to whether the growers were paid a
fair price. Demanding the use of union workers, he said, will limit the
growth of no-sweatshop clothing.

In November, Mr. Neiman of NoSweat started NoSweatshop.com, a virtual mall
where all the vendors sell goods that are made by union workers.
TeamX, whose workers are unionized, garnered early media and academic
attention because of Mr. Cohen's support and the novelty of a worker's
cooperative. But in less than two years it spent all of the venture capital
that came from Hot Fudge, which invested "substantially" in the project,
according to Rick Roth, who has been TeamX chief executive since September.
By the time Mr. Roth started, TeamX had accumulated three weeks in unpaid
wages, which he has paid.

Mr. Roth plans to expand TeamX into a network of union shops that feed into
one management system. "There is a huge market here to supply," he said. The
no-sweatshop industry, he said, needs an alternative production and supply
chain that meets the quick turnaround time that wholesalers and retailers
demand.

For the workers, Mr. Charney said, the ideal may be somewhat different.
"Maybe sewing will be automated some day," he said. "The real sweatshop free
is when the tractors become cheaper than the slaves."

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