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That ‘Sweatshop-Free’ Label in Your Clothes Is Mostly Still Just a Bunch of Bullshit

Sweatshop labor hasn’t gone away just because the brands are telling us it has — here’s how to navigate the modern garment industry’s ethical maze

As we enter that magical time of year when your underwear glues itself to your butt with the determination of an affectionate barnacle, we’re taking a closer look at sweat. What is it? What does it want? From sweatshops and anxiety to the literal drippy stuff itself, this week is all about the perspiration. Now let’s get sweaty.

At some point in the mid-1990s, an incredibly important social movement was waking Western consumers up to tough new questions about what they should be wearing. That movement, of course, was Girl Power, and it confronted the big style issues of the day: Gymwear like Sporty Spice? Eveningwear à la Posh? Or unflattering Union Jack bustier for that “gift shop at London-Heathrow airport” look?

For those who remember the decade, something that’s almost as synonymous with the 1990s as the Spice Girls is the endless parade of major clothing brands that were entangled in labor-abuse scandals. Even as they were enlisting the star power of Michael Jordan or Lenny Kravitz to sell their T-shirts and sneakers, the likes of Nike, Tommy Hilfiger, The Gap, Reebok, Levi Strauss and Walmart, among many others, were exposed as outsourcing to rock-bottom manufacturers overseas where workers were treated like dirt and paid little more. As usual, no one summed up the epoch better than The Onion, which in 2006 ran the beautiful tongue-in-cheek headline, “Report: Everything Made In Sweatshops,” with the story below claiming, “It is now literally impossible for anyone anywhere in this country to purchase any single thing that doesn’t infringe on someone’s human rights.”

But that was then, right? Twenty years later, as ethically educated, woke consumers, we surely have a healthier, more humanitarian relationship with the contents of our wardrobes. Except, in case you missed it, the Spice Girls are back, recently reformed and touring, and to complete the bad nostalgia trip, earlier this year they became embroiled in their very own 1990s-style sweatshop scandal. In January, it was revealed that T-shirts they had designed and modeled to raise money for a British charity’s “Gender Justice” campaign were in fact being put together by female machinists in Bangladesh, who earned around 45 cents for grueling 16-hour shifts and were being bullied by bosses if they missed their targets. Sweatshops and Spice Girls, together again. Two become one, you might say.

For anyone who thought the global garment trade had cleaned up its act after decades of scandal, boycotts and sweatshop-free consumer branding, this comes as a rude re-awakening. In fact, according to Jay Kerr, who works for the U.K.-based campaigning organization No Sweat, the fashion industry worldwide is still riddled with outsourcing for the sake of cheap labor. He explains that this is the likely reason the Spice Girls and Comic Relief (the charity they were promoting) found themselves so ironically caught: “Although a brand might check on the factory their clothes are being made in, it’s quite possible that the order is being outsourced to another factory where the conditions are much worse.”

At a time when so many contentious issues are wrapped up in the clothes we buy, from climate change to minority representation, sweatshop production may have receded somewhat from public consciousness. But for those who are trapped in wage-slavery, it’s never gone away. “The numbers put out by institutions like the [U.N.’s International Labor Organization, or ILO] are staggering,” says Kerr. “Millions of people around the world work in the garment industry, over 80 percent are women, and sexual harassment is rife throughout. Child labor is still a huge problem and often goes undetected due to the opaque supply chains. Twelve-hour days or more are common, and the vast majority of people in the industry don’t earn enough to live on.”

In the past decade or so, the huge consumer demand for fast fashion — cheap, throwaway clothing — has pulled brands back in the direction of sweatshop enablement; it’s led “to pressure on factory owners to supply, who in turn put pressure on workers to produce. Penalties for missing excessive production targets can be harsh.”

So yes, there’s still a world of reasons to dress as ethically as possible. But if you can’t rely on a charity that’s actively campaigning for social justice not to sell you clothes that are drenched in worker exploitation, how can you trust labels, such as “Fair Trade” or “Sweatshop Free,” to give you that reassurance? The short, distressing answer is that you can’t. “Since the public condemnation of sweatshop labor began,” says Kerr, “there’s been a growth in the number of accreditation bodies that claim to monitor the conditions that clothes are produced in. Some of these have been nothing more than whitewashing by manufacturers and brands to try and stem the backlash against the use of sweatshops.”

While some labels might be genuine in their attempts to help workers, the trouble is that the research needed to sift the worthwhile from the worthless is time-consuming, and for the average consumer, completely baffling. Many certification bodies are “basically bogus,” says Paul Roeland, of the Clean Clothes Campaign, which from its Netherlands headquarters works with around 400 trade unions, labor-rights organizations and activist groups across the globe. By way of illustration, he calls out two as unreliable guides to sweat-free product: The Brussels-based sustainable-trade organization Amfori and the Virginia-based Worldwide Responsible Apparel Production (WRAP) certification for ethical manufacturing. These nonprofits’ standards, says Roeland, fall behind the ILO’s recommendations — “and that’s about as low as you can go.”

The Clean Clothes Campaign has more time for the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), meanwhile, a recognized certification for organic textiles that includes social-responsibility demands among its criteria, but on the whole, says Roeland, “Our position is usually that the most that labels should do is not say that they’re perfect, that they’re sweat-free, because it’s not going to happen. Pretending that violations won’t happen? That’s living in La La Land.”

Peeling Off the Labels

“The problem is that it’s all too easy to create a label,” says Adam Neiman, who has been producing and marketing clothing made by unionized workers in factories in the U.S. and around the world under the banner No Sweat Apparel (which is distinct from the British No Sweat organization Jay Kerr works for) for around 20 years. “Corporations have created labels, and nonprofits have worked hand-in-glove with corporations in creating labels, and it becomes hard to distinguish exactly what’s up.”

Looking back to a time long before the anti-globalization outcry over sweatshops, Neiman recalls one certification that people really could rely on. “Once upon a time there was a union label, and consumers bought that union label, and that helped unionize industry. There was even a jingle! ‘Look for the Union label…’ It wasn’t Madison Avenue genius or anything — but it worked!”

When he launched No Sweat Apparel in 2000, Neiman’s “naïve hope” was to take the American unionized model, and the consumer reassurances it brought with it, and apply it to garment workers who were being exploited in Indonesia, Bangladesh and elsewhere. “I wanted to do both union products from the U.S. and Canada and anywhere else in the world that I could find union products,” explains Neiman. In 2004, he grabbed a chance to hold up a middle finger to exploitative clothing brands. “We saw that Nike had bought out Converse a few years previously and all they owned of the design was the star on the ankle and the name. And the indie rockers who loved Converse hated Nike — so that gave us an opportunity.”

No Sweat Apparel sourced their All Star lookalike shoes from a union shop in Indonesia. “We put a fist on the ankle and a spec sheet of the wages and benefits of our workers in Jakarta in the shoe box. We priced it at the same price as Nike was pricing Converse and challenged them to do the same.”

Demand for ethically made clothing was growing in the mid-2000s, and four years later, for a brief moment in time, says Neiman, “we actually had the most politically correct T-shirt in the world.” This item was an “organic T-shirt that I was producing at a Palestinian-owned union factory on Virgin Mary Street in Bethlehem, on the occupied West Bank.”

This kind of cooperative action at the factory-floor level, though, wasn’t what most of the activists campaigning against sweatshop labor were looking for, laments Neiman. “For one thing, they were establishing standards for international sourcing, and tried to develop this Fair Trade standard, which I thought was kind of bougie. I thought: There are unions in the developing world — let’s support them! Let’s build a working-class movement in the developing world that can do for them what it did for us here. But that was exactly not what these people wanted to happen.”

It’s fair to say that Neiman’s perspective on how the fight against sweat labor has gone in the past 20 years isn’t a positive one. From his point-of-view, certification along the lines of the various Fair Trade standards now encountered by consumers in most Western countries is “mostly about absolving guilt, and not about solving problems.” Fair Trade itself, he believes, doesn’t do “an awful lot for anybody except a very, very small number of people.”

This might come as a surprise to many who are familiar with Fair Trade labeling from the food and coffee aisles, and see it as a guarantee of conscientious consumption. But the complex, interconnected nature of supply chains means that, even in audited Fair Trade products, someone, somewhere might well be being overlooked. “Where is the premium going?” asks Neiman, who has big reservations about that extra slice of money Fair Trade-marked products ask from shoppers, which goes to support the NGO’s operations. “Most of it is going to very well-intentioned, very well-educated white kids. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard this thing that African coffee traders say: ‘The only thing that’s fair about Fair Trade coffee is the color of the skin of the kids who are doing the distribution.’ They knocked out a whole layer of African middle men.”

While there’s no universally recognized Fair Trade standard worldwide, in the interests of, well, fairness, it’s worth pointing out that the Fair Trade USA organization insists on maximum 48-hour working weeks for its accreditations of garment and household goods produced worldwide, and includes provisions related to ensuring female employees’ rights, child labor, workplace safety and the right to organize in its auditing criteria, which go beyond the ILO standards they’re based on.

When it comes down to it, Neiman’s lack of faith in Fair Trade and similar certification projects is an expression of his skepticism in the power of well-intentioned consumers to influence the cost-cutting of perfidious corporations. “If you empower workers, there’s always going to be somebody able to take care of the workers,” he argues. “But if you empower consumers, this year it’s the workers, next year it’s whales, you know?”

Brand Values

Undoubtedly, though, sustained consumer outrage at the big brands’ behavior must have had some kind of impact, both on the individual corporations who have been caught, and cumulatively, on the industry as a whole. Jay Kerr from No Sweat recalls a 2001 strike in Matamoros, Mexico, where workers were mistreated by the owners of a factory making clothes for Nike and Reebok. No Sweat helped organize student-led protests outside Nike stores in cities around the world. “And when the workers won their fight for decent hours and conditions, we were told by the workers that they’d heard it was pressure from the global protests that led to the owners being told to back down.” For Kerr, “This was evidence of global solidarity in action.”

Since then, the age of digital communication has played a large part in adding cold, hard market-wide spending power to the placards and protests as one more effective means by which consumers can urge companies toward change. In the past few years, campaigning groups like the Clean Clothes Campaign and Fashion Revolution have lobbied hard for brands to be fully transparent about their supply chains. Creating a market where companies are forced to compete with each other for the cleanest, most respectable reputations seems to have actually made a difference in how they act (as we recently found out from speaking to the co-founder of Fashion Revolution).

“There’s been a genuine move by big brands to clean up their act over the past 20 years,” says Kerr, “but for all the corporate social responsibility policies these corporations pass, there’s still pressure coming from the purchasing departments to secure cheap goods quickly.”

Paul Roeland from the Clean Clothes Campaign agrees. “None of the brands are perfect,” he says, “but you can see a difference. There are brands — mainly in the outdoor sector, like Patagonia — that really make an effort. Then there are the major European ones, they do improve but slowly: That’s the likes of H&M and Inditex (Zara is their main brand); they’re doing some stuff, but we still have criticisms. Then there’s a whole group of brands that do absolutely nothing, the biggest being Walmart. What a surprise!”

Another none-too-shocking force that’s yanking the market back to the days of opaque production comes from the growing online fashion sector. While ASOS is seen to be “relatively good” on the issue of transparency (though not on wages), “Amazon, for instance, has refused to budge on anything,” says Roeland. “They’re not transparent at all about where their own-label stuff is made. So there’s no way of checking under what conditions it’s made.”

Among the areas where progress has been made, Roeland counts worker safety, citing the Bangladesh Accord, an agreement signed by major retailers in May 2013 assuring the safety and structural integrity of workplaces. The accord was arranged in part by the Clean Clothes Campaign, and was in direct response to the Rana Plaza disaster of the previous month, in which 1,134 workers died when a poorly constructed garment factory in Dhaka collapsed. The tragedy is seen by many as the wake-up call that finally made brands take a measure of responsibility for their supply chains beyond superficial PR damage control.

But despite the steps forward in some areas, across the board the big sticking point remains wages. “While the Bangladesh Accord was instrumental in that it made brands pay for upgrades to the factories,” says Roeland, “they’re still lacking in paying the manufacturers enough to actually pay a living wage.”

How to Remove Sweat Stains

Which raises a tricky question: For all the pressure consumers might seek to apply, is the real barrier to wage justice ultimately their own wallets? Would a world where garment workers are paid fairly also be a world where most of us couldn’t afford the clothes? “The arguments against abolishing sweatshop conditions in developing countries today are the same as they were in Europe and the U.S. 100 years ago. And despite their persistence, they’ve consistently been proved wrong,” says Kerr. “The global garment industry is worth something like $1.3 trillion, and while the profits undoubtedly end up in the hands of shareholders, there’s enough money in the industry for a concerted effort to tackle its inherent problems, relating to both working conditions and environmental damage.”

Paul Roeland points to market research that the Clean Clothes Campaign has had conducted, which shows that around 60 percent of U.S. consumers would now “be willing to pay a little bit more for their clothes, if it would mean a living wage” for the people who made them. If wages were increased and more sustainable, organic materials were used, he puts the resulting rise in manufacturing costs at around 10 percent per item for cheaper products — and as low as 5 percent for larger or more expensive items. “So the actual manufacturing cost of a pair of sneakers,” he says, “is $2. And they’re sold for $100, $150 or whatever, depending on the brand. Most of that is markup and marketing. So if you increased the manufacturing cost to $3, that doesn’t really make a dent in anybody’s profits.”

On those numbers, then, you might well be willing to pay for non-sweatshop clothes. But how do you ensure a fair chunk of your money is going directly to the workers who made them? In the absence of reliable sweat-free labeling, is it safer to only buy local?

Even though his own company largely concentrates on U.S.-made T-shirts these days, Neiman warns you can’t even rely on labeling that makes claims about provenance: “Just because it says ‘U.S. made’ doesn’t mean it’s not made in a sweatshop.” Or even that it’s being made by U.S. workers: “You know, that’s where a lot of the undocumented work is. I’m not objecting to that, but I am objecting to the conditions that they’re subjected to. The reason that people hire undocumented workers is so they can evade U.S. labor laws. So we’ve got sweatshops on our side of the border. They take a trailerful of T-shirts from Mexico, which have the Mexican label sewn in lightly: You just take a couple of stitches out, you pull the label, you re-stitch the collar and then you heat-stamp it with the ‘Made in the U.S.’ stamp.” Unscrupulous traders might double their profits by doing that, Neiman says. “And if you don’t have a problem exploiting undocumented 16-year-olds, you’re not going to have a problem taking advantage of consumers either.”

So with apparently nothing that’s certified in any way certain, how should you best spend your wardrobe budget? Says Neiman, you “should be looking to support a labor movement. When you buy Fair Trade, you’re supporting that label, and you’re supporting perhaps one or two co-ops in the developing world. But when you buy union, you’re supporting the entire progressive movement. Not only is it less expensive than a Fair Trade shirt — and significantly so — but it has significantly more impact on the world.”

Coming from a more global perspective, the right to union representation is also a key message that Kerr and his fellow No Sweat campaigners want to press home. “Workers need to have their voices heard, and the best way to do this is collectively,” he says. “Over the past 20 years, many things have changed [in the anti-sweatshop campaign], but this issue has remained constant — workers still need to organize to defend their rights.”

Until that far-off day when the garment industry itself recognizes this need, and actively supports its workers in forming unions, Kerr has a few recommendations for those of us who are still too perplexed to make a purchase: “We shouldn’t beat ourselves up over every purchase of a clothing item that could be made in a sweatshop, but where those items are luxuries rather than essentials, people can think about giving their money to a company that’s gone above and beyond in ensuring that their products are sweatshop free.”

On that score, “There are some things that people can do to find out more about the companies they’re buying from. Organizations like Ethical Consumer do some great work in investigating the realities of the ethical claims made by companies.” He also suggests seeking out companies that source clothing “from workers’ co-operatives run by former sweatshop workers. Workers’ co-ops are democratic workplaces where the workers set their own wages and conditions collectively. Co-ops will often take on a strong ethical stance as the workers are well aware of the dire conditions that others work in, and therefore, they’ll have policies of not outsourcing to sweatshop employers.”

Both consumers and clothing brands seem locked into a warped economy of exploitation, and strangely, one of the keenest observations about this was made by Jemaine Clement of the Kiwi comedy duo Flight of the Conchords. In their soulful Marvin Gaye-esque lament “What’s Wrong with the World Today?” he sang: “They’re turning kids into slaves, just to make cheaper sneakers. But what’s the real cost? ’Cos the sneakers don’t seem that much cheaper. Why are we still paying so much for sneakers? When you got them made by little slave kids… What are your overheads?

Which is maybe not 100 percent solid on grounds of taste, but can’t be argued with on the grounds of what it says about us: That our desire for cheap fashion and our desire to see workers treated fairly aren’t really compatible. Sweat-labor is deeply woven into much of our clothing and labels and certification marks aren’t helping us avoid it. But if we keep holding brands accountable, keep spending our money in supportive ways and keep pulling on that thread, we might eventually see it all slowly unravel.