“Where can I buy clothes that aren’t made in sweatshops?” is probably the question we at MSN are asked most frequently, over e-mail, by phone and, quite often, in person. Especially during the holiday season. It’s a fair enough question, but to date there are no easy answers. Boycotting particular countries or brands doesn’t necessarily support workers’ struggles to improve conditions in those countries.
While buying “Made in Canada” products might benefit the Canadian garment industry, it doesn’t guarantee that your clothes weren’t made in sweatshops. The “Union Made” label is however a pretty good guarantee of fair working conditions, but you won’t find it on many apparel products sold at the local mall.
Despite the general lack of ethical shopping options, there are a few promising developments. As more and more US and Canadian consumers become aware of sweatshop abuses and ask questions about where and under what conditions clothes are made, there is clearly a growing market for sweat-free clothing. A few companies and fair trade initiatives are beginning to fill the void in the sweat-free niche market.
Pioneering Efforts …
A new US company, No Sweat Apparel, plans to sell clothing produced exclusively by members of independent trade unions in North America, Europe and the developing world. Its “Union Made” sourcing strategy is designed to help protect unionized workers in the North and fragile union victories in the South, and to support worker organizing.
Two other ventures have taken a more US-focused approach. All SweatX brand clothing is sewn in a unionized factory in Los Angeles, which is run as a cooperative with the workers as co-owners. Hoping to cash in on US university demands for clothes made under ethical conditions, the company plans to focus on wholesale orders of popular collegiate apparel styles, like T-shirts and caps.
Another Los Angeles-based company, American Apparel, also markets its products as “sweatshop free.” The T-shirt and undergarment manufacturer claims to have discontinued the use of sweatshops, subcontracting and offshore factories. It says its workers receive a living wage, health benefits and pensions. Its ads fail to mention that its employees are not represented by a union.
A fourth initiative, the UK-based Ethical Threads, sells T-shirts made by women’s co-operatives in Nicaragua and Bangladesh, and by a network of UK factories employing people with disabilities. According to the Ethical Threads website, conditions in all its workplaces meet or exceed international labour standards outlined in ILO Conventions. Ethical Threads T-shirts are being marketed to rock bands, concert promoters and others purchasing for the UK music industry.
No Easy Answers …
These “sweat-free” alternatives may not be the answer to the growing problem of sweatshop abuses, but they do show it’s possible to respect workers’ rights and compete in the marketplace. They are also setting new standards for transparency and accountability by revealing where their products are made, and committing to respect and promote international labour standards.
Before sweat-free choices are widely available at the local mall, there will need to be increased pressure on apparel industry giants to eliminate sweatshop abuses throughout their global supply chains. While ethical holiday shopping may be a small part of the solution, supporting garment workers’ struggles to organize and improve their working and living conditions continues to be the most promising route to a sweat-free garment industry. That’s not an easy answer to the question of where to find clean clothes, but it’s still the best answer. For more information, please visit these websites: