WASHINGTON -- November 19 -- Shopping for clothes in any American community these days takes you on a tour of the worlds poorest and least developed countries Pakistan, Bangladesh, El Salvador, Uganda, the Philippines and, of course, China.
From Wal-Mart to Neiman-Marcus, shoppers looking for attractive clothing too often buy products produced by workers in dangerous sweatshops and child labor from the back streets of East Los Angeles to fortress factories in rural Guangdong province.
Union members work hard and want to stretch their money in the marketplace, but we shouldnt be buying from companies that exploit their workers, says Mark Levinson, chief economist of UNITE-HERE, many of whose members work in garment, textile and related industries. The No Sweat initiative with its blend of U.S. and international union shops is a very promising innovation.
The No Sweat brand is the creation of a young Massachusetts - based company. No Sweat Apparel uses the same outsourcing model the big brands use with a twist. All their clothes and sneakers are produced in union shops, in the U.S., Canada and the developing world. They are pioneers in a burgeoning global movement that is determined to make treatment of workers a factor in consumer purchasing decisions, not just in trade agreements.
If you want justice on the job, you need a union to fight for it, said Adam Neiman, co-founder and chief executive of No Sweat Apparel. And if you want social justice in the marketplace, you have to shop for it.
No Sweat built a clothing line that carried everything from jeans, socks, button down oxfords, spaghetti strap camisoles and yoga pants. But it was their $35 "Converse look - alike" athletic shoe manufactured at a union shop in Jakarta that put them on the map this May.
Neimans fast-growing company wont put Nike out of business in the near term, but its new sneaker has something that Nike and Reebok dont have a labor disclosure form listing the wages and benefits of the lowest paid worker at their union shop in Indonesia. No Sweat puts one in every shoebox and challenged Nike to do the same. (When Neiman sent a challenge to senior executives at Nike -- along with free pair of sneakers for CEO Phil Knight -- the media picked up the story and turned the fair trade shoe into an underground global phenomenon.)
Our first effort always is to buy American and in spite of the trade and economic policies of Bush and other recent administrations, there are still companies with union workers producing high quality apparel in America, he said. But because we have an internationalist approach to the sweatshop problem were selling over 20 percent of our threads overseas!
Neiman and his wife, Natalia, both political activists, started No Sweat on a shoe string in January 2000 with a mission to challenge an industry notorious for inhumane conditions, mandatory overtime and fear in the workplace. The company first sold its products at its online store, www.NoSweatShop.com. Since launching the sneaker, retailers around the world have been clamoring for their products. We have 60 retailers in Australia and New Zealand alone waiting for their next shipment, says 23-year-old Chief Operating Officer Anne OLoughlin.
The social venture movement of the 80s spawned companies like Ben & Jerrys and Whole Foods that promised to provide so well for workers that unions would be redundant. They had this attitude that they were so well-intended that their workers didnt need a contract, said Neiman. But of course things change when companies move into the managerial phase. Bean counters start counting beans and human beings get squeezed. No Sweat is leading a new wave of social enterprise that puts the emphasis on a union contract, not some righteous dude with a pony tail.
The idea of a No Sweat label to separate clothing made under decent conditions from those from shops that skimp on wages and relied on child or coerced labor first was proposed by Labor Secretary Robert Reich in the mid-90s. A study by Kansas State University Professor Marsha Dickson, published in the Journal of Consumer Affairs in 2001, found that 16 percent of consumers attached a priority to knowing that the clothing they bought was fashioned under humane conditions.
According to Co-Op America, three other studies show that the average consumer will spend up to 28 percent more for a product if she 70 percent of clothing is bought by women knows it was not made in a sweatshop. No Sweat keeps its prices competitive with Nike and the Gap, by skipping pricey advertising and celebrity endorsements. They rely on their own consumers to spread the word. So far its working: consumers in all 50 states and 38 countries proudly wear the No Sweat brand.
"There is a large, and growing, concern in this country and Europe about the negative impact that cheap imports and trade can have on workers, jobs and the economy, said Dr. Robert J. S. Ross, sociologist and director of an international studies program at Clark University. He has written a book on sweatshops in the garment industry, Slaves to Fashion (2004 University of Michigan Press). Firms like No Sweat Apparel that insist on decent working conditions also demonstrate that free trade can be made fair. No Sweat is empowering workers and consumers, as well."
Adam Neiman is available for interviews and to speak to union audiences. Contact Brendan McCarthy at (202) 822-5200. For suggested visuals, please visit www.nosweatapparel.com. For more information about sweatshops, go to www.slavestofashion.com.