Organic Consumers Association


Previous Page

Click here to print this page

Make a Donation!


Garment Worker-Friendly Companies Try to Break the Sweatshop Mold

Trying ethics on for size
Worker-friendly clothing companies look to break the sweatshop mold
Boston Phoenix
March 3, 2005

Capitalism comes in many shapes and sizes; it’s positively Whitmanesque in
its diversity.

There is the bygone capitalism pictured in PBS specials — the heavy industry
captured on
black-and-white newsreels, which saw our grandparents and great-grandparents
trudge off to the
Herbert Hoover Manufacturing Plant to work long, demanding hours making big,
clunky things in
cavernous, dangerous, smoky, smelly environments.

There is the more recent digital capitalism— which few of us experienced
directly — where men and
women not much different from ourselves got rich working 26 hours a day,
eight days a week,
designing software in clean, well-lighted, campus-like complexes while
eating cafeteria sushi and
getting company-financed back rubs.

And then there is the wacky strain of capitalism, that delightfully
oxymoronic collection of
disparate efforts that flies under the banner of socially responsible
business. Ben & Jerry’s ice
cream is a case in point — or was until 2000, when the
little-company-that-could sold out to a huge
conglomerate, Unilever. There is Fair Trade coffee for those who want to
slake their thirst for
caffeine without irritating their consciences. Profit-making enterprises
such as these aim to do
well while doing good. It’s a neat trick, and one that two relatively green
garment manufacturers —
Waltham-based No Sweat and the better-known American Apparel, of Los Angeles
— are trying to

It’s a man-bites-dog story. As a general rule, garment manufacturers are not
known for social
consciousness. The industry stereotype tends toward sweatshops and Third
World exploitation, which
are less than edifying concepts — even in this era of Bushonomics.

Just ask Adam Neiman, the dogged co-founder and principal voice of No Sweat.
The primary selling
point of Neiman’s clothing isn’t that it’s especially sexy, cheap, or even
fashionable. Rather, his
garments, in the words of his chief financial officer, John Studer, "don’t
hurt people."

Which is more unusual than you might realize. Among all business sectors,
the garment industry is
especially infamous for exploiting the lowest-level workers by contracting
with foreign factories
that pay substandard wages, have poor ventilation and rodent infestations,
and sometimes even hire
children. The garments sold by No Sweat are "sweatshop-free" and
"union-made" — manufactured by
workers who earn a living wage, have health-care benefits, and belong to
labor unions (in fact,
Neiman believes, the only way to guarantee that management won’t mistreat
its employees is if
they’re represented by a union).

Neiman isn’t naive enough to believe he can implant a social conscience in
the Gap-shopping
American majority; he’s starting with progressive types who keep Fair Trade
coffee on the burner.
But the Newton resident nurtures high hopes for his two-year-old business,
those of a scrawny David
trying to smite the sweatshop-reliant practices of the garment-industry
Goliaths with one blow. His
weapon of choice? The fiscal power of an as-yet-untapped consumer base. If
No Sweat can prove
there’s a substantial demand for ethical threads, Neiman reasons, the bigger
brands will want to
capitalize on the niche market, and therefore will change their exploitive
ways. By this logic,
Neiman’s profit is the worker’s gain. "We’re creating an opportunity for
progressive consumers to
participate in an experiment," says Neiman. "Call it entrepreneurial
activism — [an experiment] to
see whether a niche market can be used to reform the larger industry. To me,
that’s what makes the
gamble worthwhile."

Then there’s Dov Charney, the 35-year-old co-founder of the better-known
sweatshop-free company American Apparel, which recently opened one of its 28
national retail shops
on Newbury Street. In the late 1990s, Charney designed a line of women’s
formfitting baby Ts,
tagged them with the label Classic Girl, and sold them to wholesalers. They
were an instant

Since then, Charney’s youthful threads have been publicized everywhere from
the New Yorker to CNN
to GQ. He runs the largest garment factory in the United States, pays
sewing-room employees
substantially more than the federal minimum wage of $5.15 (his average
sewing-room employee earns
$12.50 per hour), and offers health benefits, subsidized lunches, and
on-the-job massages.

But while both Neiman and Charney have built businesses around socially
conscious practices, their
similarities, it seems, end there. Charney may promote American Apparel as a
company (and claims to have invented the term), but he doesn’t think guilt
sells in the garment
industry. "Clothing is all about sex and function. It’s not about protest,"
he says. "[The other
companies] sell sweatshop-free [products] based on charity, and it’s not
sustainable: ‘Buy from us
because we’re so poor and stupid and we don’t know how to do it better, so
buy something from us
for charitable reasons.’ It’s like conscience-based selling. American
Apparel is more about
efficiency. It’s about the fact that the way we manufacture T-shirts is

Despite the two companies’ drastically different philosophies about
sweatshop-free clothing, one
thing is clear: with American Apparel’s seismic success and No Sweat’s 750
percent annual growth,
there appears to be a market for it.

No Sweat’s nerve center is nestled in the suburban basement of a brick
building off Waltham’s main
drag. Rosie the Riveter, the company’s mascot, flexes on the chest of a
mannequin in the front
window. Inside, Neiman — a medium-size man with fleshy red cheeks and a
crowd of teeth — has his
feet up on a desk. One of No Sweat’s four full-time employees, 26-year-old
CFO John Studer, stares
quizzically at a computer screen a few feet away.

Neiman has always had a political-activism streak. At 12, the Georgia-born
entrepreneur and his
older sister protested President Nixon’s inauguration and ended up in police
custody; at 15, he
interned for George McGovern. During a stint at Harvard University, Neiman
took time off to
campaign for Jimmy Carter; his first post-college professional job was as a
publicist for the
International Ladies Garment Workers Union.

In contrast to American Apparel, which makes all its garments in its
8000-square-foot Los Angeles
factory, No Sweat follows Neiman’s firm belief that a clothing company must
outsource its
production to international plants to be successful. "Each factory has to
focus on what they do
best," Neiman insists. "One company does boxer shorts best. Another company
does T-shirts, like
American Apparel. Another factory does button-down [shirts]. In order for
there to be any
efficiency, you’ve got to have specialization." But No Sweat doesn’t view
exporting jobs as
undercutting US labor unions. "The women in the developing world desperately
need these jobs,"
reads the company’s Web site. No Sweat also promises to keep at least 30
percent of its business in
the United States. "We believe the only way to protect workers anywhere is
to defend workers’
rights everywhere."

In the back of No Sweat’s modest headquarters are two storage rooms of
merchandise: women’s
athletic gear from Universal Sportswear, in Bangor, Pennsylvania;
silk-screened T-shirts from
Mirror Image, a union screen-printing shop in Pawtucket, Rhode Island; white
camisoles from
Montreal. In a third stockroom are thousands of shoeboxes from Jakarta,
Indonesia. Each contains
the company’s hallmark product, the No Sweat sneaker. Last May, Neiman
appropriated the chunky-sole
design of Chuck Taylor All-Star sneakers, the classic Converse canvas shoe
that was snatched up by
Nike in 2003, and began selling low-rise, sweatshop-free knockoffs for $35 a
pair (they’re now
$46). Each box of No Sweat’s faux Chucks contains a card detailing the wages
and benefits of the
Indonesian workers who manufactured the shoes: the lowest-paid employee in
the Jakarta factory
earns $90 a month — an estimated 20 percent more than the regional minimum
wage — along with a rice
allowance, fully funded health insurance, and paid maternity leave. (Neiman
says those monthly
salaries have risen $10 since the card was printed.)

"Part of our mission is to get consumers thinking about their own working
conditions," explains
Neiman. "I want [consumers] to look at that sheet in the shoebox and say, ‘A
hundred percent
hospitalization? I don’t have that! Paid maternity? I don’t have that. How
come these guys do? Oh —
they have a union.’ "

For the No Sweat sneaker’s release, Neiman staged a Michael Moore­style
confrontation by visiting
Nike’s Oregon headquarters, armed with a free pair of No Sweat shoes for CEO
Phil Knight. At a
press conference, he challenged the sneaker behemoth to supply a similar
wage-rate card with its
products. (In 1992, Neiman’s No Sweat business partner, Jeff Ballinger,
published a copy of an
Indonesian Nike worker’s pay stub in Harper’s magazine; the stub revealed
that the woman earned 14
cents an hour and $37.46 a month — roughly half the cost of a pair of
Nikes.) Not surprisingly,
Knight "wasn’t available," so Neiman met with Caitlin Morris, Nike’s
spokeswoman for global issues,
who said the activist’s ideas weren’t feasible for a much larger company
like Nike.

Although No Sweat’s efforts were a figurative pebble tossed at Nike’s
corporate armored tank, the
publicity stunt provided Neiman with enough news coverage to sell 30,000
pairs of sneakers. The
sneaker’s relative success boosted gross sales of No Sweat’s manufacturing
company, Bienestar Inc.,
from $84,806 to $744,555 in one calendar year. Today, nearly 100 "fair
trade" outlets worldwide
carry No Sweat sneakers.

Such figures suggest there’s a viable market for sweatshop-free goods — as
does a University of
Michigan study from October 2004. In the report, published in the Labor
Studies Journal,
researchers document how they stocked two department-store racks in the
Detroit area with identical
socks. They labeled one stand "Good Working Conditions" — defined as "no
child labor," "no
sweatshops," and "safe workplaces" — and left the other rack unadorned.
Increasing the price of the
GWC socks incrementally over a span of five months, the researchers found
that one-third of
customers were willing to shell out 10 percent more for sweatshop-free
garments. The report
concluded that "a sizeable and profitable niche market could be developed
for some consumer
products manufactured under good working conditions."

"Consumers are routinely willing to pay enormous premiums for benefits and
design," says Scott
Nova, executive director for the anti-sweatshop Workers Rights Consortium.
"Is it really so
unlikely that they’ll pay three percent more to know [their clothes weren’t]
made by a

And once this demand is proven, Neiman believes, the bigger clothing
companies will realize they’re
missing out on potential sales. "When the government tells corporations to
do something, it’s like
their parents telling them. When the laborers and the activists tell them,
it’s like their kid
brothers. But if the consumer and the investors tell them, those are the
girls they want to date,"
he says. "If some new guy pops up on the block doing something that gets the
girls’ attention, they
will turn back flips to imitate them. Basically, everyone would rather be
seduced than coerced."

Dov Charney wants to get the girls, too. And he clearly agrees with Neiman’s
philosophy of
persuasion; in fact, it’s the engine that drives his $150 million business.
But instead of aiming
to entice stodgy corporate types, he’s after sexy, hip young adults. Neiman
can have the Mother
Jones readers; Charney wants the Vice set.

In fact, Charney never set out to be a spokesman for the sweatshop-free
industry. A Tufts
University dropout from Montreal who endured a miserable stint working in
the garment business in
South Carolina, he opened his own factory so he could have total control
over product quality — not
because he planned to wage any labor campaigns. And yet, eight years later,
he employees 3000
workers at his Los Angeles factory, and there are waiting lists to work for

Charney openly eschews political affiliation, deriding both the left and
right as "boring." In
labor-reform circles, he’s a lightning rod for criticism: anti-sweatshop
activists accuse him of
resisting his employees’ attempt to unionize last year. Feminists and
conservatives don’t
particularly like him either, since American Apparel advertisements feature
young women in clingy
underwear, or nude in the bathtub.

But Charney doesn’t think drawing on sex is contradictory to the rest of his
business practices.
"They say that because we’re sweatshop-free, our advertising can’t have
beautiful people. No, we
have to just boil it down to common people," explains Charney, who posed
bare-ass for a Vice ad
himself. "We’re saying, ‘Hey, our shit’s better. You’re going to look better
in our socks.’ That’s
the message, you know, that our shit’s better."

Unlike No Sweat, American Apparel has no desire to convince big-name brands
like Levi’s and Fruit
of the Loom to change their labor practices. "Show me where Fruit of the
Loom’s sexy panties are,"
says Charney. "It’s not like young kids are dying to be in Fruit of the
Loom. They don’t say, ‘I
don’t even want to go out tonight without my Fruit of the Looms.’ [Fruit of
the Loom] has lost
touch with young adults. I’m not worried about changing them."

And besides, he doesn’t think it matters to his customers where and how
their clothes are made.
"It’s no more than icing on the cake," Charney insists. "Who cares if it’s
sweatshop-free? Even our
own employees buy clothing made in China."

It’s this attitude that really pisses off the left. "I think his out-and-out
defiance and
disrespect for the whole social-justice tradition will eventually bite him
in the ass," says Chris
Mackin, one of multiple CEOs who tried to save the now-defunct
sweatshop-free TeamX, a Los Angeles
factory not only staffed by unionized workers, but co-owned by them. "He
resisted a union drive.
It’s this cult of personality in corporate America that somehow, if your
personality is large
enough and daring enough, you will exceed any of the needs or demands for
fairness or justice that
came before you because you’re so enlightened. That’s the kind of narcissism
that I think is just

For better or worse, though, Charney must be on to something: American
Apparel has seen tremendous
growth in the past five years. Projected figures for 2004 had the company
grossing $150 million,
and its retail stores have multiplied exponentially. And as American Apparel
expands overseas,
Charney promises not to pay any of his employees less than the US federal
minimum wage.

at His DESK in Waltham, Adam Neiman points to a world map dotted with
thumbtacks representing the
retail stores that carry his brand. Pinned up are color printouts of seven
new designs
incorporating the No Sweat logo and the Rosie the Riveter emblem. They’re
hipper than anything No
Sweat has previously sold. "We’ve had a lot of bands that have been asking
for stuff they could
wear on stage," Neiman says of the motivation behind the redesigns. "There
was this band that did
Total, ah, is it Total Live?"

"Total Request Live," mumbles No Sweat’s chief operating officer, Anne
O’Loughlin, a 2002 Tufts

"Total Request Live, thank you," says Neiman. "This is about the gazillionth
time I’ve had to ask.
It was this band Gratitude. They’re, um," he pauses, as if trying to
remember the word, "an emo
band. This is this guy’s five-second break on MTV, and during these five
seconds, he’s going" —
Neiman frantically points at his shirt, mouthing "no sweat."

Neiman calls Dov Charney’s managerial method the "righteous dude with the
ponytail" model. It’s the
same anti-union attitude, he says, that’s proffered by Ben & Jerry’s and
Whole Foods. " ‘We don’t
need unions — we’ve got ponytails. We’re righteous dudes. Who needs a
contract?’ "

Neiman contends this approach is ultimately bad for the worker. "What we’re
saying is that the
righteous dude in the ponytail is no substitute for a union contract," he
says. "People die. People
get older. People sell out. They get bought out. Things happen. Companies
pass through the
entrepreneurial phase, and then the management comes in and the bean
counters come in, and the
first thing they do is start squeezing the human beings. That’s just
inevitable if there’s not a
contract. If you’re righteous, you’re righteous enough to put it in

There’s another major caveat with the virtuous-employer shtick, Neiman says.
"The other problem
with that righteous-dude model is that [it suggests] the best solution to
all workers’ problems is
to find a cool boss. That’s just not really an option for most of us."

For his part, Charney insists American Apparel workers didn’t actually want
to unionize, but that
they’d been pressured into it by union reps. "You can see me supporting
unions in many
circumstances. But it’s not for management to promote a union. You tell me
[of] one CEO in the
world that says, ‘Union, yes! I want a union! I don’t want to deal with my
employees directly. I’d
rather go through a third party with little-to-mediocre quality of
negotiators; I want to negotiate
through them. That’s the path of efficiency for me.’ No way. That’s why we
don’t outsource — we
want to have a direct connection to the workers."

The bottom line, says Charney, is that he just doesn’t think unions are
necessary for his
employees. "What about the fact that you can knock on the boss’s car window
and he’ll roll it down
and hear your story? Or that only one person removed from any worker, or two
people removed, have
my cell number? Or that you can say ‘Fuck you’ to me and you’re probably not
going to get fired?

"For anybody that claims we frustrated the union, come visit the workers or
shut your mouth," he
adds. "Is it a utopia? No. You’re working on a sewing machine — it’s hard
work. Is it ideal? No,
we’re not claiming it’s ideal. We’re making the best of it."

And Charney has some choice words for Adam Neiman. "No Sweat — boring! That
guy from Massachusetts
— c’mon, dude, how many panties has he sold? How many children were born
from his shit?" By
Charney’s standards, the Indonesian factory workers producing No Sweat
sneakers don’t exactly have
it made. "Those workers earn less than a buck an hour. It’s on his own Web
site. He says they’re
making more than the minimum wage in that country. But it’s like 70 cents an
hour; that’s not
sweatshop-free to me. It’s a sweatshop operation, No Sweat," Charney laughs.
"At least we can say
at American Apparel that the workers earn $26-, $28-, sometimes $35,000 a
year. What does one worker get in Indonesia for 70 cents a day? A shack?"

Neiman is the first to admit his motives aren’t purely altruistic. Like
Charney, he’s making a buck in a system that oppresses others. And if he did ever manage to convince a monolithic brand like Nike to change its foul ways, that wouldn’t necessarily spell success for his own company. "If we can be perceived as having been instrumental in bringing this change about, I’m reasonably confident that we could hold on to the half-a-point of market share of progressive consumers," Neiman says. "[But] is it possible that we could make ourselves obsolete and cease to have a reason to exist? Yeah."

Camille Dodero can be reached at


March 4, 2005

Brazil Passes Law Allowing Crops With Modified Genes



SÃO PAULO, Brazil, March 3 - In a significant victory for large
biotechnology companies like Monsanto, Brazil's lower house of Congress has
overwhelmingly approved legislation paving the way for the legalization of
genetically modified crops.

After months of delays and heated debate, legislators passed a
biotechnology law late Wednesday night by a vote of 352 to 60. The bill had
pitted farmers and scientists against environmental and religious groups.
Besides lifting a longstanding ban on the sale and planting of gene-altered
seeds, the legislation also clears the way for research involving human
embryonic stem cells that have been frozen for at least three years.

The bill, which was approved by the Senate in December, is expected to be
signed into law by President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in the next two
weeks. Mr. da Silva, whose own Workers' Party is packed with
environmentalists who fiercely oppose genetically engineered crops, issued
temporary decrees twice in the last two years allowing the planting of
modified soybeans, even though it was technically illegal to do so.

Until now, Brazil was one of the last of the world's major agricultural
producers not to have granted blanket permanent approval to the planting of
genetically modified crops. Even so, farmers have been flouting the ban for
years, sowing modified soybean seeds that have been smuggled across the
border from neighboring Argentina.

Agricultural specialists estimate that about 30 percent of Brazil's soy
crop is already grown with genetically engineered seeds.

<>Copyright 2005
<>The New York Times Company


March 4, 2005

India Allows Biotech Cotton in the North


Filed at 12:25 p.m. ET

BANGALORE, India (AP) -- India on Friday approved cultivation of
genetically modified cotton in its fertile northern region, rejecting
demands from anti-biotechnology activists.

The government's Genetic Engineering Approval Committee permitted six
varieties of so-called BT cotton seeds, based on technology from seed giant
Co., for the northern states of Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan, a senior
government official said on condition of anonymity.

The official, who was present at the committee's meeting in New Delhi, said
the decision will expand the scope of gene-modified cultivation in India,
which until now has been allowed only in six southern and central states.

BT stands for bacillus thuringiensis, a bacterium whose gene is injected
into cotton seeds to give them resistance against boll worms, a major
concern for farmers in India.

The environmental group Greenpeace immediately criticized the decision.

``We are disappointed by the government decision to expand the region under
BT cotton, while the need was to stop where it was already grown,'' said
Greenpeace campaigner Divya Raghunandan.

Greenpeace claims that BT cotton crops have failed, plunging farmers into
financial problems, a claim dismissed by manufacturers.

The committee official said a decision was deferred on renewing licenses
for three varieties of BT cotton sold by Monsanto's Indian partners. The
licenses for those varieties, given in 2002, will expire later this month.

India's cotton season begins in June, and Monsanto's partners need license
renewals to start selling this year.

Monsanto's spokeswoman for India, Ranjana Smetacek, said she wasn't aware
of Friday decision. ``We know the GEAC met today, but we are still awaiting
formal notification,'' she said.

Monsanto's BT cotton technology has been licensed to several companies
which are allowed to sell their seeds in six southern and central states.
So far, genetically modified cotton was banned in the northern regions,
though farmers there illegally planted BT cotton.

The six seeds approved Friday had been developed by Monsanto's Indian
partners Mahyco-Monsanto, Ankur Seeds and Rasi Seeds, Raghunandan said.

Monsanto's BT cotton is the only genetically modified crop allowed in
India, a reluctant entrant into the world of biotechnology. Ever since
three varieties of the seed were given three-year licenses in 2002, the
company has faced stiff opposition from environmental groups. But it
managed to get approval for one more strain in 2004.

Critics say the adverse effects of GM seeds have not been studied
adequately, that the seeds are environmentally hazardous and could
contaminate the genes of native varieties through cross pollination,
eventually making farmers poorer.

However, advocates of genetic modification say it helps fight plant
diseases, increase yield and improves the nutritive value of food crops.

Monsanto shares rose $4.98, or 8.4 percent, to $64 in morning trading
Friday on the New York Stock Exchange, setting a new 52-week high.


On the Net:

Monsanto's Indian subsidiary:

<>Copyright 2005 The Associated Press |