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Clothes conscience
Using fair trade as a guide, you avoid purchases that help foreign sweatshops thrive
The Mercury News
Rachel Wolf
November 21, 2006 Who made the shirt you're wearing? Where do the people who made your shirt work, how much are they paid, and what happens to them when they get sick?

Most American teens prefer not to ask these questions. Most who shop at large retailers, whether they shop for price or style, know they probably wouldn't like the answers. Sweatshops are no secret in the fashion industry, but alternatives to them sometimes seem hidden.

"These non-sweatshop clothes aren't in the mainstream. They haven't been brought into the fold of the teenage routine," said Mike Wright, a senior at Palo Alto High. "You don't go to Mervyn's and see a non-sweatshop shoe on the rack — you'd have to go to a whole 'nother store."

But it's easier than most think to take a stand against sweatshops by buying "fair trade" clothes. All it takes is a little research, maybe a few clicks of a mouse and, usually, a couple of dollars more than you'd spend at the mall.

At its core, the fair-trade movement is a reaction to the exploitation of workers. As manufacturing spreads to the poorer areas of the world, some manufacturers take advantage of workers' willingness to work for lower wages than would be acceptable — or legal — here in the United States.

Fair-trade companies react either by producing at home, as in the case of American Apparel, or by holding their own foreign factories to higher standards in the treatment and compensation of workers. Some companies furthermore address the issue of sustainable and eco-friendly production by using organic and recycled materials.

Fair-trade status can be conferred by a regulatory agency such as the Fair Trade Federation, or the term can simply be used to describe a company that self-imposes higher labor and eco-friendly standards. For some companies, like American Apparel, fair trade is simply sound business.

"It makes good sense to treat your workers well," said Cynthia Semon, communications director at American Apparel. The company manufactures its products in Los Angeles and, according to Semon, considers paying high wages and providing workers with good benefits "part of the company's philosophy and culture."

At another fair-trade company, No Sweat Apparel, CEO Adam Neiman said he hopes the company's business model of manufacturing its products in union shops inside and outside the United States will spread.

"We want to offer not just a solution for a small number of guilt-ridden consumers, but something the rest of the industry could adopt," Neiman said. No Sweat uses union factories in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, but also in other countries, including El Salvador, Indonesia, Nicaragua and South Africa.

Although the companies share views of how to make their products, their approach to selling those products are different. American Apparel advertises in sexed-up campaigns typical of the fashion industry. No Sweat products aren't advertised, relying instead on press coverage and word-of-mouth.

Both companies specialize in clothes teens often wear: T-shirts, sweatshirts and more. The clothes also are easy to find, thanks to the Internet. But they do come with a higher price than you might be used to paying at your local discount store, because paying workers a fair wage does make manufacturing more costly.

"Our products will never be as cheap as Target's or Wal-Mart's," Neiman said.

But buying fair trade can help you make a difference. You buy from companies that treat their workers well; these workers are able to enjoy a better life because of higher wages and greater benefits.

"If the workers have the power to resist exploitation, they will," Neiman said.