Tony Pecinovsky

The Clothing Gap

My friend shops at the GAP. Like most people, she has heard the stories about slave labor in Indonesia, El Salvador and Cambodia, and the stories about Honduran factory workers forced to take pregnancy tests and get abortions. But these campaigns haven't changed her shopping habits. Why? She just doesn't see other options.

While organizations like Sweat Shop Watch and United Students Against Sweatshops inform consumers and activists about sweatshops, slave labor and union busting -- and in many instances are able to pressure garment manufacturers to adhere to an ethical code of conduct agreements -- they offer few consumer alternatives. This is one of the weaknesses of the anti-sweatshop movement.

Campaigns meant to educate consumers and mobilize activists concerned about exploitation have been partially successful. But these campaigns haven't challenged the fashion market. While sales for GAP declined over the past few years, it was attributed to an "an ill-fated attempt to attract trend-conscious teens [which] alienated older customers who missed the casual classics" -- not anti-sweatshop campaigns. But sales have rebounded. In May GAP reported a seven-month sales growth, retaining its share of the U.S. apparel market, and reported earnings were $202 million for the first fiscal quarter of 2003, compared to only $37 million in 2002.

By the end of 2000 GAP Inc. was worth over $28 billion, and then CEO Millard Drexler made over $39 million. Until sales drop there isn't a compelling reason for GAP to become more ethical.

However, there are a few in the garment industry willing to do the right thing. One alternative to sweatshop-produced clothing is Sweat-X, an employee-owned and unionized garment manufacturer founded in 2001. By incorporating core values like union representation, living wages and transparent decision-making processes, Sweat-X has created a socially conscious business model -- and an example for other "sweat-free" manufacturers.

Two other choices for conscious consumers are American Apparel and No Sweat.

American Apparel's mission statement says it all: "A global divide exists between the haves and have-nots and too often the apparel industry has participated in the suppression of the poor. The challenge is to establish new ways of doing business that are efficient and profitable without exploiting workers."

No Sweat claims to be the "world's first open-source apparel manufacturer." Most garment manufacturers operate on a closed-source model, hiding their manufacturer source from competitors, who will want to get the same cut-rate labor prices, and from consumers, who take offense at sweatshop labor.

Even though Sweat-X employees are represented by the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE), like American Apparel and No Sweat they don't have the resources to market or advertise on the same level as GAP. This is where the AFL-CIO can play a strategic, and mutually beneficial role.

Years of organizing have given the 13 million-member Federation a unique perspective. They know how difficult it is find ethical business practices. As one of the only progressive institutions with the resources and the incentive to encourage a union-made, sweat-free fashion industry, a heavy burden must fall on their shoulders.

The AFL-CIO's Union Label and Service Trades Department says that it was founded to "promote the products and services union members." But, unfortunately most union-made clothes are designed to be work-related and just aren't very fashionable.

So unless firefighter, police, postal or industrial uniforms become the next big thing, or the AFL-CIO begins to think differently about marketing union-made products, it's going to be hard for the labor movement to put substantial economic pressure on corporations that use sweatshops.

The United Auto Workers (UAW) has demonstrated how effective this sort of pressure can be. With 500,000 active and 700,000 retired members, the UAW has created a solid bloc of member/consumers who buy (a lot) of union-made cars. By giving discounts and incentives to UAW members when they buy union-made cars, the UAW has proven that buying union-made products can equal job security for union members.

Imagine a 13 million-member consumer bloc that bought union-made clothes. That would make one hell of a dent in GAP's market share. But without AFL-CIO support, it is just a dream.

So my friend continues to shop at GAP. I can complain, but I can't blame her. Until an AFL-CIO backed garment manufacturer begins to produce fashionable clothes, where else are we going to find cool khakis, summer tees and cargo shorts?

Tony Pecinovsky is a independent media/labor activist in Brooklyn, New York. He has organized for the SEIU and the Teamsters.

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