Cornell Daily Sun - May 30, 2002
From Cherry Garcia to Sweatshop
By DANIELLE STEIN
Thank goodness for Ben and
Jerry. They are the men who have brought us Chubby Hubby, Cherry Garcia,
and Festivus (a tasty new flavor named in honor of George Costanza's made-up
family holiday.) They have given us chocolate-covered pretzels in our
ice cream and have made us feel good about consuming a pint chock full
of brownies and cookie dough merely by labeling it "Frozen Yogurt."
They've given us counterculture references for flavor names and quirky
commercials filmed in Vermont. And now they're giving us fashion.
Well actually, only Ben (he
does have a last name -- Cohen) gets credit for this one. The ice cream
king, who has long been involved in social activism, has combined his
politics and his entrepreneurial talents in a clothing line called SweatX.
The company's goal is to create clothing while giving workers quality
of life -- paying them $8.50 per hour (much more than the average sweatshop
factory employee receives) plus benefits, a pension, and profit sharing
as well as top-of-the-line equipment and a pleasant environment in which
to work. SweatX is out to prove that it's possible to be successful while
still treating employees well. And in Los Angeles, a hotbed of sweatshops
where workers are regularly paid less than minimum wage for long hours
in unsafe conditions, this is a crucial message.
This new clothing firm, which
will produce casual clothing like T-shirts and sweatpants, is perhaps
the most hopeful step in the fight against sweatshop labor. Because there
are many concerned people out there -- myself included -- who might deplore
the way most of our clothing is produced, but who have few apparel alternatives.
For instance, I know that Nike is a glaring example of abhorrent labor
practices, so I avoid their products. But I don't have the statistics
on most of the other clothing lines out there, and I would believe that
many of the companies I do patronize are paying South American workers
15 cents per hour to make my cable-knit sweater. And for the average consumer
who does not spend her life as a labor activist, it is difficult to avoid
the products of all offending companies.
But SweatX gives us an entirely
new angle from which to wage this battle. Instead of asking consumers
to stop buying from companies with less-than-perfect labor policies, it
invites us to support one that passes the test. Instead of making activism
require a decrease in consumerism (which is an unsuccessful tactic in
our consumer-driven society), it allows us to make a statement and simultaneously
get cool stuff! Throwing a little support in SweatX's direction contributes
to its success, and the financial success of a garment business that practices
humane treatment of workers would serve as proof to the industry that
its trespasses are inexcusable. And if the industry loses its justification
-- that it needs cheap labor to profit -- sweatshops are on the way out.
SweatX seeks to market its
clothing in sports shops and college bookstores, drawing on the recent
increase in anti-sweatshop activism on campuses across the country (as
is evident here at Cornell). But the director of the California Fashion
Association, Ilse Metchek, was quoted in the L.A. Times expressing her
skepticism that students would support the project: "Students protest.
They yell and scream. But when push comes to shove, they go to Wal-Mart
and buy clothing made in Saipan."
It's time to prove people like
Metchek wrong. Many of us may not have enough willpower or alternatives
to shun big clothing labels like Nike, but this does not mean we won't
rally around causes we support, especially if they require little effort
(often a prerequisite for college student participation) and result in
cute additions to our wardrobes. Ben Cohen and his colleagues have created
something that has both innovation and integrity, and they deserve our
Ben Cohen's SweatX has the
potential to revolutionize labor practices in the garment industry. If
successful, it could become the prototype for other companies who could
no longer claim they can't turn profits without exploiting workers. But
it's a new project and has yet to prove itself. As its success would mean
progress for labor practices, its failure would mean regression. Support
of this endeavor -- in the form of consumerism, publicity, whatever --
by college students is essential. It could make worker's rights the flavor
of the future.
Copyright C 2002 by The Cornell
Daily Sun, Inc.
All rights reserved.