It is becoming an increasingly important set of questions for the fashion-conscious in the western world: Under what conditions were these clothes made? And by whom? A movement against so-called sweatshop clothing took hold on college campuses in the United States a number of years ago. And now, the movement is going mainstream.
The sweatshop-free campaign is still one that tends to be dominated by young people. In an American Apparel store on Broadway in New York City, none of the customers or sales clerks looks to be over the age of 35.
The store opened about a year and a half ago, and all of the clothing it sells is made in a factory in downtown Los Angeles. The average worker on American Apparel's sewing floor is paid $12.50 an hour. That is about $7 more than the federal minimum wage, and it is something a garment-worker toiling for 16 cents an hour in China could only ever dream of.
The salaries paid to the people making American Apparel's clothing are part of the company's sales pitch, and it seems to be working. One of the guys who I work with knew about American Apparel, and had told me 'not sweatshop,' says one customer, who didn't want to give her name. So I figured I'd come in here.
Last year, American Apparel sold more than $150 million worth of sweatshop-free clothing, and the company expects to add another $100 million to its sales this year.
Other groups have begun to jump onto the sweatshop-free bandwagon. The Justice Clothing Company in Bangor, Maine, sells only garments that have been sewn by unionized workers in the United States and Canada. And Edun -- a company recently founded by music celebrity Bono and his wife, Ali Hewson --has pledged to bring sweatshop-free clothing production to countries in the Third World.
"For better or worse, we've gotten involved in this global marketplace, and I will freely admit that there are some positive aspects to the global marketplace," says Dave Tillford,a senior writer for the Center for the New American Dream, which seeks to educate people about the ramifications of their consumption choices. "But one of the very, very unfortunate aspects is that it has separated the consumer from the producer, to the extent where we just don't see what happens behind the screen."
But movements like the sweatshop-free clothing campaign are slowly changing that. Dave Tillford points to the growing popularity of so-called "fair trade" coffee as another example of what can be accomplished when consumers are informed. Thanks to the Fair Trade movement, workers on hundreds of coffee plantations in Africa and Latin America are now getting decent wages for their labor.
Still, shopping with a conscience does come with a price tag. Decent wages cost money, and according to Derrick Nichols, who manages the American Apparel store in Broadway, those costs do get passed along to the consumer. "You can go to K-mart and buy a 3-pack of Hanes' (undershirts) for $10, whereas each of our basic, white t-shirts at American Apparel will retail for $15," he says. "But I think people are aware of that, and I think people are willing to pay for honest living wages and the idea upon which the company is based."
Executives at American Apparel are certainly banking on that. The company already has 50 retail stores in the United States, Canada, England, France, and Germany. It plans on opening another 29 in the coming year, including its first stores in Mexico and Switzerland.