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A Short History of the Ethical Consumer/Anti-Sweatshop Movement in the USA

American consumers have a long history of acting in support of the rights of workers who produce the goods they wear and consume.  From the National Consumers League's work at the turn of the 20th century to combat sweatshop abuses and develop a union label for consumers, to solidarity boycotts of table grapes in support of California farm workers in the late 1960s and again in the 1980s, American consumers have time and again demonstrated their commitment to ethical consumerism.  The 1990s were a decade of student solidarity with workers in sweatshops throughout the developing world, as thousands of college students organized on campuses around the United States to insist that their universities commit to sweatfree procurement of university-licensed apparel.

In the 1990s many activists in the anti-sweatshop movement throughout North America and Western Europe focused time and attention on the codes of conduct and voluntary monitoring initiatives being developed by the garment and footwear industries and by 'multi-stakeholder' groups.  While these initiatives all have their role in monitoring or otherwise working to improve factory conditions, it is clear that consumers in the US are ready to support more progressive and positive approaches.

The trend toward ethical consumerism is real, well-documented by the media, and supported by academic research.  In recent months articles have appeared regularly in the New York Times, Financial Times, Wall Street Journal and other leading publications highlighting new initiatives directed at ethical consumers, from the "Edun" clothing brand to the new Red initiative unveiled at the Davos World Economic Forum meetings in January 2006.  The Fair Trade certification system has notably taken advantage of the desire of ethical consumers for better assurances of fair practices and treatment of those who labor to produce the goods they consume.

The Designated Supplier Program was recently developed by university students to provide assurances to consumers about empowerment and the existence of a living wage in factories.  Specifically, the Designated Supplier Program promotes empowered workplaces€Â¹workplaces where workers enjoy the benefit of a democratic union and the protection of a negotiated collective bargaining agreement.  Workers additionally benefit from the assurance that a premium wage will be paid for the benefit of the assurance of sweatfree conditions in their factory.

Efforts to promote codes of conduct began in the 1970s.  Revelations of the involvement of International Telephone and Telegraph and other US corporations in the bloody coup against the Allende government in Chile in 1973, and of huge bribes paid by the Lockheed Corporation to Japanese political figures to gain military contracts in 1975, led to a movement by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and governments of developing countries to demand greater corporate accountability.  In 1975, the United Nations created a Commission on Transnational Corporations which set out to negotiate a UN Code of Conduct on Transnational Corporations.  However, during the 1980s, the UN Commission found it impossible to develop any mechanisms to make this code relevant, or even to research the level of compliance by companies or countries with the terms of the codes.  By the end of the decade, the Commission itself was virtually without funds and unable to carry out even a modicum of its original mandate.   Under strong pressure from the US government, it was dismantled in the early 1990s.

Despite the failure of these attempts, pressure to create codes to regulate employer behavior worldwide grew.  During the 1980s, several academics and grassroots activists investigated and publicized reports of environmental, labor and land rights abuses by multinational corporations expanding into developing countries.  By the early 1990s these investigations had led to public exposes of practices by several US-based companies.  In 1991 jeans maker Levi-Strauss was revealed to be using a contractor in the Northern Marianas, where young women from China and Thailand were being shipped in to work in factories under near-bonded conditions and denied any access to labor law protection.   Dismayed by the negative publicity, Levi-Strauss set out to implement a code of conduct both for its own operations and for those of its suppliers and contractors.  This was the first known example of a company code of conduct adopted as a means to combat both bad conditions and bad publicity.[1] Shoemakers Nike International and Reebok International were the subjects of a series of reports starting in the early 1990s about labor rights abuses in shoe
production facilities in China and Southeast Asia.[2] Reebok responded by adopting the first code of conduct to contain language protecting the rights to associate freely and bargain collectively.  Walmart was the subject of a television expose that revealed that garments it retailed carrying a "Made in USA" label were actually produced with child labor in Bangladesh.  The National Labor Committee, a US-based NGO,  found and publicized the fact that the"Kathy Lee" label, owned by TV personality Kathy Lee Gifford, was being produced in factories in Honduras employing 13 year-old girls.

Several companies in these industries adopted voluntary codes of conduct in response to domestic concerns.  The new movement for corporate-initiated codes has been complemented by activity in the public domain, to pressure local governments to adopt selective purchasing laws.  Some entities that serve the public interest, particularly universities, have been under pressure to adopt their own codes of conduct.  By the mid-1990s, concerned activists were raising concerns that these codes were not effectively being implemented at the factory level.  In response to the need for verification, a number of new initiatives were developed.  The best-known of these, the Apparel Industry Partnership, was initiated by President Bill Clinton in August 1996.  Other initiatives include the Social Accountability International Program, the Worldwide Reponsible Apparel Production program, and the Worker Rights Consortium.  Each of these programs are described below.  New non-profit organizations, such as Verite, also commenced work during this period to provide independent monitoring services directly to corporations, and a number of for-profit accounting firms, including Price Waterhouse, KPMG and Ernst and Young began to offer labor rights auditing services to their clients.

[1]See Forcese, Craig, Commerce with Conscience? Human Rights and Corporate Codes of Conduct, Quebec: International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development, 1997.

 [2]See The Sweatshop Quandary, Washington: Investor Responsibility Research Center, 1998.