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Apparel Company Creates Revolution
The Round Up/The Student Voice of New Mexico State University
Julia Smith
November 21, 2002

The words "corporate" and "revolution" seem to belong on opposite ends of the spectrum of ideals. But recently, with the inception and success of a new kind of business, the ideas have merged, and a corporate revolution is exactly what is happening.

It's happening in one of society's most in-demand markets — the apparel business. The idea? Sweatshop-free clothing.

In recent years several socially conscious clothing companies have emerged in the United States. Based on the concept of U.S.-based, non-exploitive, unionized factories, the owners and CEOs of these "anti-sweatshops" claim to be shifting the way the apparel industry works.

Dov Charney, founder of one of the most successful of the sweatshop-free clothing manufacturers, American Apparel, said, "We have the opportunity to be a vehicle to improve workplace conditions worldwide."

Currently the vast majority of apparel businesses in the U.S. utilize international factories to assemble garments. Charney, as well as many of his anti-sweatshop cohorts, say these factories cannot be regulated well enough, and the majority of the time, garment workers are being underpaid and overworked.

However, competing businesses that use these offshore and international factories, like Fruit of the Loom, say it is these low-cost factories that keep prices low for consumers.

Fruit of the Loom outlines its business strategy on its Web site, stating, "The company's strategy is to use low cost offshore operations for labor-intensive cutting, sewing and finishing activities. This allows the company to optimize its cost structure and offer continued value to its customers."

The outline continues saying that this strategy has lowered company spending by $150 million annually.

Fruit of the Loom claims to have the best value in its market; American Apparel's prices are 150 percent higher.

Charney said though American Apparel's clothes cost more, they also last longer.

So now that we've seen how these new corporate practices affect the consumer, we must also see how they affect the worker. Wages are an important issue for factories and garment companies. Current wages for offshore workers depend on which country in which they work. According to statistics from Sweatshop Watch, a coalition working to eliminate sweatshop labor in the garment industry, laborers in Honduras, El Salvador and China earn sometimes less than half of what is considered to be a "living wage."

American Apparel and other sweatshop-free manufacturers place an emphasis on paying their workers living wages. In Los Angeles, AA workers earn about $15 per hour. Charney said this is enough to live healthily and comfortably in the city.

But Charney said he realized that pay is not the only factor one must consider for a healthy workplace. He said the factory has plenty of windows for natural light and massage therapists who work exclusively with the workers. The company also provides daycare services, health insurance for workers' children (whether they're illegal aliens or not), English classes after work, bus passes for all workers and a human resources department that provides information about workers' benefits.

As well as human rights, the company is taking steps to be environmentally friendly. The company's Web site explains that all its cotton scraps are recycled.

So perhaps the next question is how do these sweat-free companies accomplish all this and still make a profit?

"We made sure to have a product that people would love," Charney said. "So many kids become disenfranchised when shopping at the malls because there are just too many clothes, and they are of poor quality."

"You have to make sure you have a phenomenal product, then you can focus on the rest," charney said.

This has resulted in American Apparel becoming, in Charney's words, "a capitalist success."

"We're not anti-corporate, the corporate model is beautiful when it's used in a positive way," he said.

Charney said perhaps their next step is to influence other companies. "The state of the U.S. apparel industry, and the world apparel industry, looks like apartheid. American Apparel plans to expose this and be the catalyst in the creation of a regime whereby we're worker-friendly. The challenge to business leaders is to create business models that are efficient, exciting, and not based on exploitation," he said.