Clothes with a Conscience


I thought it only fair to begin an article on responsible clothing with a little personal audit. Let's see -- my Kookai jacket doesn't say where it was made, but the label's Chinese characters are a dead giveaway. My British Karen Millen pants -- purchased in a jet-lagged delusion before remembering one dollar does not equal one pound -- say "Made in Cyprus." My "Silver Woman" cowboy-inspired shirt was a Goodwill purchase and doesn't seem to have a label; and my tattered cotton tank-top's label is long since gone.

So, am I wearing sweatshop-made clothes? Probably. But how can I know for sure?

I set out to ask folks who made "Kathie Lee Gifford" and "sweatshop" household words a simple question -- or what I thought would be a simple question: Whose clothes should we buy? With over 80 percent of consumers now saying they are willing to pay more for products made under "good" conditions, my sense is a lot of people would like to know the answer.

Turning that desire into action seems more pressing than ever. The garment industry, spreading across 200 countries, employs as many as 10 million people and is renowned for labor rights abuses and workplace injuries. In the U.S., the industry is not necessarily much better. The Department of Labor itself estimates that roughly 65 percent of the 5,000 garment shops in Los Angeles do not comply with U.S. labor laws.

Unfortunately, unlike "fair-trade certified" products, we have no one-stop label to be sure our clothes are made "sweat-free." Today, we can buy fair-trade certified coffee (or tea, bananas, or chocolate) and know we are supporting democratically run cooperatives and ensuring farmers get a fair price. But clothes, which cost more than our morning lattes, have no equivalent guarantee. The Fair Labor Association -- a nonprofit monitoring organization -- is developing a certification process, but even its certification will only ensure that a 5 percent random sampling of a company's factories audited are "sweat-free."

A big obstacle is the structure of the industry. Difficult to automate, clothing manufacturing still relies almost entirely on the human touch: hands at machines sewing fabric. Because clothing is often made piecemeal -- a sleeve here, a zipper there -- the work is also mostly subcontracted and mobile, further confounding monitors and human rights advocates.

"It is challenging to find out where the factories are, let alone to regulate them," Dara O'Rourke told me from his offices at U.C. Berkeley, where he researches the labor and environmental practices of companies producing garments, footwear, electronics, and more. Global companies like The Gap, he explained, typically subcontract with as many as 5,000 factories in 50 countries.

"It is the structure of the business," O'Rourke explained, "that is driving conditions downward. Even firms with reputations as good corporate citizens, or environmentally sound," O'Rourke said, "often disclose nothing about where or how their goods are produced. The vast majority refuse to publish the names or locations of their factories or allow independent groups to look into them," O'Rourke told me. "Right now it's virtually impossible for me to say whether one company is a "good" company or not."

If you don't mind point-and-click shopping, a few new companies do offer union-made or "sweat-free" guarantees: Maggie's Functional Organics, SweatX, American Apparel, and to name a few. You can also choose to shop local where you know who you're buying from personally.

With these few exceptions, being a responsible shopper goes beyond a "do buy" list. It's not just about our shopping choices; it's using our power as citizens to transform a flawed system -- making conscious choices together. Thankfully, the ways to do so have never been clearer.

Hey Harvard, Who Made Your Boxers?

First, we can take a lesson from the kids...$3 billion a year, that's the annual sales in collegiate apparel. Sure, it's only a fraction of the global industry, but it's still, well, $3 billion! Since the mid-1990s, students in the U.S. and Canada have been pushing their universities to support fair labor through their purchases of everything with a school logo, from baseball caps to boxers. Founded in 1998, United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) already has 350 affiliate campuses and has signed on 120 schools with their monitoring partner, the Worker Rights Consortium.

Today almost every campus has a "code of conduct" for its garment production, for which USAS takes much credit. And it has now expanded its efforts to support living wage campaigns and union drives across the globe.

"The anti-sweatshop student movement has changed the climate around these issues," says Tom Hayden, past California assemblyman and state senator. "We ought to take advantage of that climate to make changes on the policy level." And that's exactly what Hayden and thousands of others are doing around the country.

The Power of Procurement

In a landmark measure just before Arnie won the recall, California Governor Gray Davis signed SB 578, a law prohibiting the state of California from buying anything that was produced under sweatshop conditions. "It's essentially saying that California expenditures reflect our state labor policy," says Sophia Heller, legislative aid in State Senator Richard Alarcón's office. "It's putting our money where our mouth is."

If you think school buying is big, imagine the scale of government purchasing. This law applies to all state purchases -- from highway patrol uniforms to office furniture and computers. And there's ongoing citizen power enlisted in this bill's enforcement: A state-sponsored website will list pending bids for contracts so organizations like Sweatshop Watch and other community groups can alert the agency when a bidder or a sub-contractor is a known sweatshop.

But don't think this is just a kooky California fad. Popping up across the country are parallel purchasing policies. Dan Hennefeld, director of Uniform Procurement at UNITE, the union representing apparel, textile, and related industry workers, told me similar laws have passed in New York City, Boston, and Milwaukee and the states of New Jersey and Maine all within the last few years.

Unions: The Anti-Sweatshop Guarantee

Procurement policy is one way to change the system. I asked Adam Neiman, CEO of, a union-made apparel company, what would be another crucial mechanism, his answer was clear: unions. "Not that many generations ago, garment workers here in our country sent their workers to college," Neiman said. "The U.S. and Europe got very wealthy, and we wouldn't have done it without unions. Maybe that's exactly what's needed in the developing world -- what worked here." When I suggested some socially responsible businesses argue they don't need unions, they live their values, Neiman responded: "This is business. There should be a contract, not a handshake. If you're so righteous, put it in writing."

Supporting unions is also key, because they're contagious. Neiman explained: "If you just have a great factory run by a great manager, all workers elsewhere can hope for is that a job opens there for them." If you have a union, it can inspire workers in neighboring factories to form their own.

One of the best examples is the recent success of the Korean-owned Kukdong factory in Atlixco, Mexico. In 2001, workers there submitted a complaint to the Workers' Rights Consortium about egregious rights violations. With the help of the U.S. student movement and activists at organizations like Sweatshop Watch, the 1,200 workers at Kukdong, producing for Nike and Reebok among other brand names, organized and formed one of the first independent unions for garment workers in Mexico. Those workers have already won their second contract and are helping organize workers in the same state.

Fairly Grown, Fairly Made

Shopping with the whole world in mind means we think not only about how our clothes were made -- but what they're made of. As Chris Treter of Organic Consumers Association (OCA) says, "There are sweatshops in the factories and the fields."

Treter directs the "Clothes for a Change" campaign at OCA, a nonprofit public interest organization with 90,000 volunteers on its rolls. The campaign has already signed on American Apparel, a sweatshop-free clothing company with a factory in downtown Los Angeles which has launched a "sustainable edition" that includes six different styles made from 100 percent certified organic cotton. The campaign is also a big supporter of Maggie's Functional Organics whose 100 percent organic products are produced by a women-run cooperative in Nicaragua.

Bena Burdna, the CEO of Maggie's, says buying organic cotton is particularly important because it's the second most pesticide-dependent crop in the world (tobacco is first), accounting for 10 percent of global pesticide use and 25 percent of insecticides.

The impact of choosing organic clothing goes well beyond the environmental benefits -- it's a matter of life and death. According to Treter, in the U.S. alone, 10,000 farm workers and people in surrounding communities die every year from pesticide exposure.

So why hasn't organic clothing taken off? "Consumer demand isn't there...yet," Treter said. I wonder if that would be true if all of us knew what Treter knows: To make just one cotton T-shirt uses one-third of a pound of agricultural chemicals. I think about what Burdna said: "Your skin is your biggest organ and it breathes." I look at my cotton tank-top with new eyes.

We Have the Power

In the face of global supply chains and distant decision makers, any one of us can feel like such a tiny piece of the puzzle. But people who are seeing real change -- Kukdong workers, anti-sweatshop students, organic activists -- remind us of our power. And more of us are doing something. In one recent study, half of Americans reported that they "punished" a company in the last year for "bad social performance." Nikki Bas from Sweatshop Watch has seen the impact firsthand. "We were involved for almost four years in the Saipan campaign [against The Gap]. A lot of what we asked consumers to do was write letters and protest, and the company eventually settled."

"There is no question that if you write a letter, send an e-mail, make a phone call," Bjorn Skorpen Claeson from SweatFree Communities, a national network of local anti-sweatshop campaigns, echoed, "[the companies] know there are hundreds more like you out there. It's really important that you tell yourself you make a difference and not bury your conscience."

I think back to my personal clothing audit. I'm definitely not a poster child for sweatshop-free clothes. But I now see ways to be part of changing the norms, values, and structures so that someday the question of what companies we should buy from will be irrelevant as all clothes will be sweatshop-free.

Anna Lappé is the co-author of Hope's Edge: The Next Diet for a Small Planet. This story originally published by Dragonfly Media.

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