Consumers Pay More for Clear Consciences and New Duds

Discussion
May 11, 2005
George Anderson

By George Anderson


According to Sweatshop Watch, a group that monitors garment manufacturing in California and elsewhere, a sweatshop “is a workplace that violates the law and where workers are subject to: Extreme exploitation, including the absence of a living wage or long work hours, poor working conditions, such as health and safety hazards, arbitrary discipline, such as verbal or physical abuse, or fear and intimidation when they speak out, organize, or attempt to form a union.”


Today, domestic apparel manufacturers and retailers are building a small but growing market for products that are “sweatshop free” as American Apparel in Los Angeles calls them.


Well-heeled and socially conscious consumers are willing to pay more for garments from companies such as American Apparel and No Sweat Apparel in Waltham, Mass.


Adam Neiman, co-founder of No Sweat Apparel, told The Christian Science Monitor, “I see the sweatshop issue as being a very transcendent issue. On the one hand we’re trying to help unionize the global garment industry, and on the other hand we want consumers here to start asking questions about their own working conditions.”


Mr. Neiman, who refers to himself as a “lapsed activist,” is clear that he is in business to make money. “We wanted to create a for-profit business that molds public opinion and creates a new revenue stream,” he said of No Sweat Apparel.


Kalle Lasn, chief executive of the Blackspot Anticorporation, which manufactures the vegetarian, recycled, anti-sweatshop Blackspot sneaker brand (No Sweat Apparel has sold more than 10,000 pairs since last year.), said his company is “selling an idea… trying to create a new ideal of activism.”


Mr. Lasn isn’t shy about discussing his competitors. “If we can successfully launch our Blackspot sneaker on the back of Nike and if we cut into their market share, that would be a success,” he said.


For most consumers, however, even attractive ideas need to meet a price point if they’re going to let conscience be their buying guide, said Wendy Leibman, president of WSL Strategic Retail.


“It’s not at the point where this has affected the retail market… Value is still guided by price, not where [clothing] comes from,” she said.


Moderator’s Comment: Is the growing visibility of companies such as American Apparel setting the stage for major changes in garment industry standards
for workers in the future? Are major chain retailers missing out on the “sweatshop free” opportunity?

George Anderson – Moderator

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6 Comments on "Consumers Pay More for Clear Consciences and New Duds"


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Carol Spieckerman
Guest
15 years 9 months ago

I’ve been intrigued by American Apparel for a while and shopped their stores last year. The store environment is industrial-interesting, plastered with their mission statement, photos taken by founder, Dov Charney, and videos of him expounding on the concept and other matters. The clothing is so very basic and not cheap. There was no way I could justify picking up a basic ribbed tank for $17.00 or a $28.00 solid v-neck. Overall, the store had the effect of being a temple to Charney’s vision (and art, and voice, and …) and a bit condescending. Maybe in a sea of buttery t’s offered by everyone from American Eagle to Target, it’s just hard for me to adjust my taste to a store concept offering basics at outlandish prices with a sermon on the side!

Don Delzell
Guest
Don Delzell
15 years 9 months ago
“Sweatshop free” may be problematic for major retailers. How can you create a shop concept around this without inherently calling attention to the vast majority of product you offer which doesn’t meet the standard? It’s like saying “here’s this cool collection of stuff and it’s an expression of social consciousness. Then there’s everything else in my store which is not.” On the other hand, in certain markets with sufficiently aligned demographics, it probably does provide a very distinctive point of difference. There can be a dangerous arrogance in applying our standards of living and social engineering solutions to other cultures. As a very young buyer, I visited a 3rd World country to source apparel. Shocked at the living conditions, during negotiations I gave the manufacturer an extra $.10 per item. No one knew but he and I. I asked that he pass it along to his workers, and he agreed. Some time later, I was in conversation with an acquaintance of that man. We shared a laugh about a naive buyer who had given away… Read more »
David Livingston
Guest
15 years 9 months ago

We see the same thing with other products without much impact. Whether it be coffee beans, blue jeans or if the chickens we eat are being pleasantly killed, most consumers are interested in the visible end result rather than the process that brought them the product. Even if we do get to visit the inside of a sweatshop or meat packing plant, eventually the shock wears off when we see that stylish outfit, smell the coffee, the hear sizzle of the steak.

Michael Lackman
Guest
Michael Lackman
15 years 9 months ago

As a clothing retailer, we will sell only clothing that is Fair Trade. We always research our manufacturers and supplier/distributors to insure that the workers who produce the garments are paid fair wages and work under decent conditions. We strongly believe that to purchase garments produced unethically is unconscionable. A growing number of consumers agree and seek out companies such as ours for their clothing.

Bernice Hurst
Guest
15 years 9 months ago

In the UK, food purchases are increasingly being influenced by fair trade (with upper and lower case letters) and price rises accepted if they aren’t too outlandish. The same does not yet apply to clothes although there are a few companies like American Apparel who are trying to make an impact. Whether or not they ever succeed may depend on the quality/price balance. Not to mention the marketing budget. Both Tesco and Asda, to name but just two, are heavily promoting their cheapest clothes and very successfully, too, I might add. Any company attempting to compete with them is definitely coming from behind.

Bernice Hurst
Guest
15 years 9 months ago

A codicil to my earlier comment – see Wear your heart on your sleeve with ethical clothing – Guardian Unlimited for a viewpoint on how fashion designers are now leading the way in encouraging people to buy clothes that are fairly traded. Perhaps, if the stores I mentioned yesterday are coming from behind when compared to Asda and Tesco, the richest of the rich will give them a leg up.

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