Fashion Industry Patches Its Image

'Mr. Chairman, I'm an entertainer who had a simple idea: create fashion wear with my name on it in the hopes of raising money for children. In hindsight, I have concluded that an exploration of quantum physics is easier to do.'Thus spoke Kathie Lee Gifford on July 15 before Representative Chris Smith, Republican of New Jersey, and other members of Congress at a House subcommittee hearing on child labor. The hearing, plus a conference on sweatshops called the Fashion Industry Forum, which took place the following day, marked the final steps in Gifford's sudden transformation from perky morning-show hostess to anti-sweatshop crusader. It was just this April that Gifford, who burnishes an image as a children's advocate, was derided as a hypocrite for having her clothing line produced in dingy sweatshops by underpaid teenagers in Honduras and New York. By mid-July, leaders in Congress, along with Labor Secretary Robert Reich, the moderator at the Fashion Forum, were lauding Gifford as a selfless martyr who had done more to focus public attention on child-labor and sweatshop abuses than anyone in memory.There is a certain truth to this. Reporters and cameramen jammed Capitol Hill for the child-labor hearings, not to report on the issue but to catch a glimpse of Gifford, to see what she was wearing, to capture the moment when the emotions welled and the celebrity entertainer shed a tear. The cameras turned out the next day for the Fashion Forum. Supermodel Cheryl Tiegs, aerobics instructor Richard Simmons, and the heads of Levi's, Wal-Mart, Kmart, and dozens of other corporate chains were in attendance -- largely in response to Gifford's public plea that celebrities and industry leaders "do the right thing."The Kathie Lee phenomenon represents a new stage in the blurring of entertainment spectacle with policymaking and news. At the Fashion Forum, the cameras flashed, Gifford beamed, and husband Frank stood like a pillar by her side. Meanwhile, Secretary Reich announced portentously: "We will look back upon today, years from now, and say this was a major turning point in our collective commitment to rid the nation -- and also even the world -- of sweatshops." Appropriately, the Forum took place at Marymount University, home to one of the country's leading fashion-design schools and to the Center for Ethical Concerns, which recently produced a survey showing that eight out of ten Americans would avoid shopping in retail stores that sell sweatshop goods. Perhaps that is why Tracy Mullin, president of the National Retail Federation, the trade organization representing 1.4 million U.S. retail establishments, issued a call at the Forum for "an end to scapegoating." According to Mullin and other corporate representatives, industry is not part of the problem but part of the solution.This is Gifford's view as well. Brushing aside a tear as she described "the human face of suffering," Gifford spoke glowingly of Wal-Mart, which sells the clothing line that earned her $9 million in 1995. While the "entertainer who just had a simple idea" claims to be supporting needy children, only 10 percent of proceeds from sales go to the kids. Dividing the rest between herself and Wal-Mart, Gifford predictably blames the sweatshop controversy on "that little cockroach down the line" -- the small subcontracting shop that abuses workers behind the parent company's back.The truth is not so flattering. The garment industry is by nature pyramidal, with real power in the hands of the big chains that set prices, Neil Kearney of the International Textile, Garment, and Leather Workers Federation points out. "These companies adopt codes of conduct, some of them in very nice language," Kearney explains, "but then they negotiate deals which make it impossible for their contractors to honor the codes. The companies say to the contractor, 'Please allow for freedom of association, pay a decent wage,' but then they say, 'we will pay you eighty-seven cents to produce each shirt.' This includes the wage, fabric, everything."Kearney was one of only three representatives of labor at the Forum. As everyone from Robert Reich to Jay Mazur of the Union of Needle Trades and Industrial Employees saluted the industry leaders for caring enough to attend, it was easy enough to discern the outlines of a corporate damage-control strategy.Take the issue of monitoring. Again and again at the Forum, representatives from Nordstrom to Levi Strauss, Wal-Mart to Kmart, promised stepped-up monitoring of labor conditions at their manufacturing and subcontracting plants. All turned silent and evasive, however, when audience members asked if they would submit to independent monitoring by labor and human-rights groups, which is the only way to give the oversight process real teeth.By midday, participants spoke excitedly of "the new business of monitoring," with Secretary Reich openly encouraging audience members to enter this potentially lucrative entrepreneurial field. Behold the prospect, then, of companies like Wal-Mart hiring other private companies to conduct "independent" inspections of their facilities, passing along the reassuring findings to their customers.The results of this corporate-ministered approach can be seen at Nike, whose independent auditor, Ernst and Young, persistently fails to note the abuses identified by the company's truly independent critics throughout Indonesia. Asked if she would submit to independent monitoring, Gifford insisted she would, saying she had in mind the private detective agency Kroll Associates, a firm that has worked in the past with retired CIA agents. One can just picture the former spooks arriving to investigate abuses in places like Honduras.The gap between rhetoric and substance was evident on other scores as well. At various points, industry leaders endorsed the idea of placing No Sweat labels on clothing made under proper conditions. No sweat for the companies, since the labels will be self-administered. Larry Martin, president of the American Apparel Manufacturers Association, surprised everyone by announcing that industry favors tougher labor laws to crack down on illegal shops. Asked by an audience member whether he would endorse legislation to make manufacturers and retailers jointly liable for criminal abuses, Martin abruptly altered course: "It's a concept we are obviously not in love with."The Forum was hardly open. Charles Kernaghan of the National Labor Committee, the watchdog group responsible for the initial campaign against Kathie Lee, was not invited to participate. Nor was Jeffrey Ballinger of Press for Change, an advocacy group that tracks Nike's operations. Ballinger appeared at the Forum with Cicih Sukaeshi, an Indonesian woman fired in 1993 for trying to organize at a Nike subcontracting plant, but the two were blocked from even entering as onlookers. Also missing was a single critic of the Clinton Administration's business-backed free-trade agenda, which has created sweatshops by freeing capital and de-regulating labor markets.By the end of the day, the mood at Marymount had lightened, with Bud Konheim of Nicole Miller drawing chuckles for suggesting that instead of monitoring, companies could simply rat on each other to expose the abusive practices of their rivals. As his suggestion makes clear, industry's concern clearly lies not with how workers are treated but with how to protect and enhance market and profit share. Along with refurbishing her image, this is ultimately Kathie Lee Gifford's interest as well, which is perhaps why the entertainer left the Forum looking so relieved and satisfied.
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