Blood on Your Shirt

sweatshop freeToday, I consider myself a more conscious shopper not because I look at prices, but because I look at labels. Where was that jacket made? What country did those jeans come from? Could these sneakers have been manufactured using sweatshop labor?

According to Sweatshopwatch.org, sweatshops are "workplaces where workers are subject to extreme exploitation, including the absence of a living wage or benefits, poor working conditions, and arbitrary discipline, such as verbal and physical abuse." Sweatshops violate labor laws and human rights, and I have decided that I don't want to buy clothes made by people who are being exploited. However, that's easier said than done because it's difficult to know whether or not clothing has been made in sweatshops.

It's not like a jacket will have a label that says, "Made in a sweatshop," sewn onto the lining. And looking at where a pair of sneakers was manufactured does not give any indication about the labor practices that occur in that country. While there has been a lot of media coverage on sweatshops in countries like Mexico and Indonesia, sweatshops can also exist right in your backyard, especially if you live in California or New York. A t-shirt could say, "Made in the USA," but be made in a sweatshop. Similarly, just because something was made in Mexico does not mean it was made with sweatshop labor.

Organizations like United Students Against Sweatshops and Sweatshop Watch have been fighting against multi-million dollar companies who have been known to use sweatshops like GAP, Nike and Bebe (just to name a few). Their efforts have increased awareness, but the problem still exists.

One challenge is that most consumers don't think about sweatshop labor. "I love clothes, but I usually don't think about where they come from," says Brittany Thomas, a 15-year-old from Oak Ridge, Tennessee. In shopping malls across the country, most teens are like Brittany, thinking about how or where to score the latest and coolest outfits -- not about how or where those outfits were manufactured. People want to wear clothes that are stylish and hip, which is why name brand designers make a substantial profit. Teens want clothes from GAP, Nike, and Bebe, and the average person is not concerned that the name brand t-shirt they just paid $30 for was made for 30 cents an hour in near-slave conditions.

For people who do care about where their clothing comes from, shopping is frustrating. Once you've done your homework and researched which companies use sweatshop labor, it can be hard to find an alternative. Clothing doesn't come with "sweatshop-free" labels, so how can we know what products are OK? Often times, it's just easier to buy a shirt and try not to think about where it was made. Josh Cook, 15, from Louisville, Kentucky, concurs. "I think [exploitation] still goes on today mainly because people don't know who does it and who doesn't."




Sites About Sweatshops:

Sweatshop Watch
United Students Against Sweatshops

Sweatshop-Free Clothes:

American Apparel
No Sweat
Sweat X
Three Stitch

Fortunately, in the last few years several new clothing companies have been founded which market themselves as sweatshop-free. These companies don't just quietly produce quality clothing that is sweatshop-free -- they broadcast their social mission loud and clear. For these companies, being sweatshop-free is cool.

TeamX Inc. is one such company. It was started by a community development venture capital fund, Hot Fudge Social Venture Fund. Created by Ben Cohen of Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream, the Hot Fudge Social Venture Fund wanted to create an alternative to sweatshops. They provided the money needed to start TeamX Inc., and thus, the company was born. TeamX Inc.'s mission is to make clothes with a conscience. The company's main goal is to create quality t-shirts while treating workers fairly. "We go the extra mile in terms of [our] anti-sweatshop objectives. We're wanting to make sure that the labor movement and that the unions are a part of it," says Chris Mackin, CEO of TeamX Inc.

Based in Los Angeles, TeamX Inc. hires employees who are with the Union of Needle Traders Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE). In addition to making t-shirts, they also tout on their website that their marketing program "actively educates consumers about the sweatshop problem and the alternatives available."

TeamX Inc.'s efforts are extraordinary, but their clothing line, SweatX, only offers basic t-shirts and fleece jackets. The clothing is more geared towards wholesalers and companies who want to print designs on the shirts and resell them. As a consumer who is dedicated to the aesthetics of clothing I want to support the cause, but I don't just want black, grey, white, with a hint of color raglan and cap sleeve tees to fill my closets. I want color and variety -- which is exactly what American Apparel offers.

American Apparel, another Los Angeles based company, is made for man, woman, child, and dog (yes, they actually make t-shirts for your pet). The company offers clothing that is trendy and funky, so you don't have to substitute style for politics. There is an array of colors besides the basics, like orange, kelly green, and silver. Women can choose from crew necks, scoop neck, one shoulder shirts, and many other styles. The men's line is basic but still offers 12 different styles. American Apparel also produces underwear and loungewear.

Similar to TeamX Inc., American Apparel's mission is to produce high quality clothing while pioneering industry standards of social responsibility in the workplace. However, unlike TeamX Inc., which was started specifically to test a new socially conscious business model, American Apparel was a business first. "At American Apparel our first goal was to make amazing t-shirts that people love to wear before we got involved with the anti-sweatshop movement," explains CEO and founder Dov Charney. Unlike most of his competitors, Charney started out running a legitimate shop and paid his workers decent, legal wages. He then realized that what he was doing was, unfortunately, an exception in the industry and began to market his clothing as an alternative to sweatshop products. Today, he continues to run what he calls "a good operation." According to Charney, he pays workers 12 dollars an hour and offers health insurance for eight dollars a week.

"Good operation" is an understatement in describing companies that are doing what's right in an industry where many others are doing wrong. However, despite the fair wages and social mission of TeamX Inc. and American Apparel, these two companies still have financial problems and critics to contend with.

For example, one of TeamX Inc.'s goals is to become employee-owned. Unfortunately, the company has yet to make a profit in the two years it has been in existence, and is waiting until it does so to offer employees a stake in the company. As a matter of fact, according to the August 7, 2003 radio piece on Marketplace which reported the lack of TeamX Inc.'s profits, the company is now considering working with foreign subcontractors to stay afloat. Of course, the foreign factories would have to be unionized cooperatives, which means they wouldn't be using sweatshops. Nonetheless, it's a strong statement about the power of the new global economy and Americans' demands for cheap clothing.

American Apparel meanwhile, is actually turning a profit because they charge more for their t-shirts and they don't use contractors or middlemen. Charney scoffs at the idea that a sweatshop-free business can't be profitable. "I'm suggesting that [being sweatshop-free] is more efficient than what the institutional norms are, which is basically chasing slave labor." His company, however, was criticized in a January 12, 2003 Los Angeles Times article for claiming that they provide health insurance to workers, when in fact, the company only started offering health insurance in November 2002. Up until then, workers had to enroll in government sponsored healthcare for low income families. In addition, American Apparel still does not give workers paid sick or vacation days. And unlike TeamX Inc., workers at American Apparel are not unionized.

But for all the criticism and financial woes, the fact still remains that TeamX Inc. and American Apparel are pioneering socially conscious business models and treating their workers fairly in an industry where abuse and illegal practices are often the norm. Maybe multi-million dollar apparel companies won't stop using sweatshops in the near future, but one clothing company that is committed to using non-sweatshop manufacturers is No Sweat.

Whereas TeamX Inc. and American Apparel make their own clothing and sell most of it wholesale, No Sweat is more like GAP or Bebe. They outsource the manufacturing of their clothing line to other companies, but unlike GAP or Bebe, they are committed to only outsourcing to companies that are unionized. For example, No Sweat contracts TeamX Inc. to make their line of yoga pants. However, because American Apparel is not unionized, No Sweat doesn't do business with them.

For No Sweat co-founder Adam Neiman, unionized labor is the key to creating real change for workers because it's the only way to guarantee workers' rights. Like TeamX Inc., No Sweat will be using union shops in places like Mexico and Indonesia, but Neiman sees it as "building global solidarity among workers." Plus, it's really the only way to keep prices competitive and low on their products. To him, the issue is not American versus foreign, it's union versus non-union. When Nike got criticized for using shoe factories in Indonesia, it was because the factories were operating under terrible conditions and paying workers so little -- not just because they were in Indonesia. Neiman believes that unionizing would relieve garment workers of abusive conditions and unfair pay. Recently, Neiman has been talking to Charney in hopes of convincing him to unionize American Apparel.

Like American Apparel, No Sweat is turning a profit. Neiman explains that No Sweat makes money because they don't spend money on marketing. Whereas GAP pays millions of dollars to Madonna and Missy Elliott to endorse their clothes and millions more on print and television ads, No Sweat relies solely on word of mouth advertising to promote their line of casual clothing, which includes sweatshirts, jackets, polo shirts, and knit hats.

Obviously, enough people care about buying non-sweatshop clothing to keep them in business. Neiman says he feels uneasy about being perceived as trying to capitalize on the sweatshop problem by offering an alternative. Instead, he is committed to creating solutions for workers. "This is about helping garment workers all over the world. It's not about giving middle class consumers clean hands." But the fact that middle class consumers want clean hands is helping garment workers keep secure union jobs. It is also helping No Sweat stay in business.

Despite the fact that teens like Brittany claim they don't think about where their clothes come from, hopefully knowing about companies like TeamX Inc., American Apparel, and No Sweat will help them change their shopping habits. Although Brittany says that she doesn't really think about where her clothes come from, she adds, "If I knew that a company didn't use sweatshops I would look at their clothes more than a company that uses them."

For shoppers like Amanda Thompson, 22, of Montclair, New Jersey, that knowledge is crucial. "Sweatshops should not exist. They are, in fact a modern form of slavery and no human being should be treated as less than human," she says. "But I need the knowledge in order to start the revolution."

Na'imah Boone just graduated from college and lives in New Jersey. WireTap editor Jean Chen did additional reporting and writing for this article.

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