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It's OK to Like American Apparel
Sharon Margolis
July 18, 2008

The biggest clothing manufacturer in the US is getting a lot of attention lately. Not for their low-fi pornographic ad campaign, or the sexual harassment cases pending against CEO Dov Charney, but for some pretty radical eco-initiatives. Seriously.

Am Apps has found a way to totally recycle leftover scrap material: by using it to (logically enough) create a line of thongs and other skimpy-but-wearable pieces. That saves over 30,000 pounds of cotton per week - and hours of embarrassment caused by unsightly pantylines. They've also launched an all-organic "Sustainable Edition" line, which features their most popular pieces in 100% organic cotton. Soon, "about 80% of all the cotton we use will be organic," says Community Outreach Director, Shawn Shahani. That means 30,000 pounds of Cleaner Cotton bought that's been locally harvested. And many, many track jackets made, guilt-free.

The brand's organic and recycled apparel is manufactured entirely in a downtown L.A. factory, where operations are partially powered by solar panels on the roof. Solar energy accounts for a hefty 30% of the power used to make AA goods, not least among them, the back-in-vogue-every-20-years lamé leggings and matching headband. Remember that the next time you decide to show off your fashion foresight.

Am Apps' eco-friendly approach also increases profitability. Shifts to vegetable oil-fueled transportation, as well as efforts to minimize waste on an employee level, have substantially reduced company costs. Not to call that their main objective; central to the green philosophy of production is a commitment to the fair treatment of workers. American Apparel employees get paid twice the minimum wage, receive subsidized transportation, and have a say in the production process. "The culture here is sort of changing. If an idea came from any level, we would seriously consider it." Like the classic deep V-neck tee, brainchild of a factory employee.

American Apparel actually is doing good things in the world. But they'll have to keep defending that to cynics outside their "urban" niche, who wonder what the hell '70s soft-core porn and lifestyle marketing have to do with saving the planet.



"[Our style] resonates with our target market, younger urbanite people that are looking for things that look kind of vintage. That's the most environmental thing you could possibly do - to buy vintage clothing. We have that look. It's just kind of popular."

So where does the Hitachi Magic Wand "personal massager," on shelves now, fit in with the do-good message? "It's a massager. You know that's what it is. It's been used for other things... This is American Apparel, but [Dov's] from Montreal. His views on sex are highly European." Let's be clear: not too highly European. "My interview was at his house. There's no porn lying around. He offered me a beer when I came in."

Among his employees, Dov is generally held in pretty high regard. "He's incredibly passionate. He's neurotic, but you have to be. He just walks around and, you know, he'll scream, he'll do something he likes, like repeat 'yo' just to motivate people around him. That's the energy that people feed off of. The factory workers love him, because he's given them so many opportunities."

That sentiment has taken the form of the questionable T-shirt-emblazoned logo, Legalize L.A. "It's just an idea, we don't have a desk or anyone in charge of it. We're not a political force by any means. It's all about protecting his workers and their families - we have a lot of immigrants here."

Hard as it may be to accept, American Apparel doesn't really need to justify their marketing practices. Sex sells, but sex is fun. When you feel sexy, you feel good, and people who feel good, do good.

"We're not soap boxy - that's not what the company is. First and foremost, we're in the business of creating clothes. We have some things that are harder to swallow, that are on the fringe of taste... [But] the publicity of our sexual images helps people to realize that it's possible to treat your workers humanely and to treat the environment with respect," says Shahani. "It's impossible to ignore the fact that a mainstream clothing company is upping its use of organic cotton. This is the next step for the American culture."

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