Walking New York City streets, you expect to see fashion or what passes for it. You don’t necessarily expect to see commentary on it. But last year’s Rana Plaza collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh, is undoubtedly the cause for at least a small change affecting Manhattan pedestrians passing American Apparel branches.
I was strolling by my local American Apparel emporium a few weeks ago and noticed a wooden board outside on which was a message. I include only the top two-thirds for space purposes:
American Apparel is sweat-shop free. We emphasize this because it actually makes a difference. While we always want you to choose American Apparel because you love the product, we also want you to feel good about where it’s from.
Thousands of industrial workers making our clothing at our state-of-the-art factory in downtown Los Angeles earn an average of $12/hour, plus medical and other comprehensive benefits for themselves and their families. Many highly skilled sewers earn upwards of $30,000 per year, which is in sharp contrast to the 20 cent/hour wages commonly found in factories abroad. Our manufacturing employees work alongside our designers, IT, retail, finance and administrative employees, all under one roof where they are able to collaborate together to sculpt a sustainable business model that doesn’t rely on exploitation. It is critical for us to know the faces of our workers, many of whom have been with our company since we began manufacturing in Los Angeles over fifteen years ago.
Making clothing responsibly in America requires risk-taking and long-term investment—we think it’s well worth it. The apparel industry’s relentless and blind pursuit of the lowest possible wages cannot be sustained over time, ethically or fiscally.
Confession: Until recently, I hadn’t spent much time—okay, no time at all—concentrating on where the clothing I buy is manufactured. If I like it and think it’s priced right, I get it.
Recently, I wrote about the foreign manufacturing angle in what could now be called part one of a two-part article. Now, as a result of the American Apparel prompt, I’m thinking about my inclination to say I believe in supporting made-in-USA product.
Yet, while espousing that line of thought, I might be swayed by anyone claiming my Go-America outlook is a mite jingoistic and that there’s something to be said for supporting third-world countries like, for instance, Bangladesh.
Maybe I’m alone here, maybe not. But the Phantom Tac factory episode and its death toll jarred me enough to raise my consciousness. The American Apparel sign has raised it again. I went to the website and wasn’t that surprised to discover how extensive the back-up information is. To begin—and it’s only a beginning—there’s an About Us page with this introductory information:
A garment worker in Bangladesh earns an average of $600 a year. An experienced American Apparel worker can earn $30,000+ and receive benefits such as comprehensive health care.
The American Apparel treatise continues for pages, mentioning company political activism on, among other issues, immigration reform and legalizing gay rights (“Gay O.K.” T-shirts distributed widely). Moreover, American Apparel CEO Dov Charney has stressed the company’s commitment for some time, and in the early Bangladesh disaster wake reiterated his position, declaring, “The truth of it, and it is important to be said, is that the clothes we wear do not have to be at the expense of the lives of others.”
And my immediate additional response to the American Apparel sign was, What other American clothing companies, if any, are responding in like manner? Amusingly enough, there’s one designer who’s making news these Sochi weeks on the very subject: Ralph Lauren.
Lauren has been notably aggressive in becoming the official designer for sports events. He’s had the U.S. Open wrapped up for some time, and, needless to say at the moment, he’s nailed down the stateside Olympic team honors. He was knocked in summer 2012 when the world learned that his patriotic outfits had been made in China. Shamed, he’s seen to it that this year’s togs come from Commerce, California, and a high-fashion company called Ball of Cotton.
Never mind that Lauren’s patchwork sweaters have been kidded globally while the $595 price tag for consumers hasn’t proved discouraging. (As a Lauren advocate, I’ll only comment that the sweater is typically Ralph but not one of his outright successes. I won’t be purchasing—even if I had the spare $595.)
Be aware, however, that the designer is doing more than switching his manufacturing from China to the West Coast. He’s plunked down $500,000 for the Fashion Manufacturing Initiative. What’s that? Here’s the mission statement:
The Fashion Manufacturing Initiative (FMI) is an investment fund to help revitalize New York City’s garment industry. The competition program will offer matching financial grants to New York City’s top fashion manufacturing production facilities looking to grow and sustain their business through the acquisition of innovative equipment, advanced technology, workforce training and professional development programming. FMI was developed and will be managed by the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), and will operate under the leadership of Andrew Rosen, President & Founder of Theory, in partnership with the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC).
Yes, you clothes horses out there, there is a tide coming in to and on to these shores. Surfing on it, you can find someone like Eric Henry, CEO of TS Designs remarking that he’s staying stateside for manufacturing by relying on “dirt to shirt” suppliers within a 600-mile radius. According to the Huffington Post Business report, his workers get $15 an hour and place a code on the back of T-shirts that when entered on a computer offer the “name, photo and contact information for every person whose labors went into creating the product.” Incidentally, Henry doesn’t want to compete on cost. He’s counting on quality winning out.
What’s that you say? How will quality over low cost rate with me? I’d like to vow there will be no contest, but I make no promises. I do think I can say I’ll be reading more labels for the “Made in USA” designation. Whether finding it will be enough for me to head immediately to the checkout counter, I also can’t say categorically.
All the same, anyone interested in locating where a shopper finds more sweatshop-free shopping — in addition to or besides American Apparel — only needs to look around elsewhere online. Maybe the place to commence is Sweatfree Shop. Other websites abound, although few or none will mention, among too many others, Wal-Mart, Kmart, Gap, Target and Nike. They’re cited in not a few articles about costs kept low through the use of sweatshops.
Then again, a determined sweatshop naysayer may want to consult Green America. The advice found there is to shop for secondhand clothes, look in thrift or consignments stores or simply buy fewer clothes. The Green America slogan could be—but apparently isn’t—Henry David Thoreau’s once-again-pertinent quote, “Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.”