Tragedy Puts Spotlight on Sweatshops
We’ve reached a watershed moment in the history of the international labor movement. For decades now, garment workers have been dying while toiling in unsafe factories, subcontracted by western apparel giants who deny any responsibility for these preventable tragedies. But for the first time in a generation, ethically-made options are on the upswing, and workers are regaining a sense of dignity and empowerment.
Our CEO and co-founder, Kevin O’Brien, has made it his life’s work to better understand domestic and global supply chains as well as responsible production. He works tirelessly to fill orders with factories that value transparency and a democratic worker voice. This is the goal of Ethix Merch, and we’re very excited to be recognized for the work we do. This week we were featured by the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.
Thanks to all those involved in spreading the word about worker safety, respect, and ethically sourced garments. You can see the interview on Worcester T&G, or read it below:
It was an image Kevin W. O’Brien won’t forget: A man and a woman embracing, under the rubble of a collapsed factory. They were dead.
For Mr. O’Brien, an anti-sweatshop activist-turned-businessman, the picture was another reminder of the human cost of the cheap merchandise Americans are used to buying — goods often produced in overseas factories with poor worker conditions and lax safety standards.
The issue came to a head this spring when the Rana Plaza factory complex in Bangladesh collapsed, killing more than 1,100 workers who had been making clothes for big-name retailers in the western world. The tragedy forced some European apparel companies into action, signing on to a deal to ensure better standards at garment factories, and it led to the U.S. government suspending trade privileges with Bangladesh last week.
Mr. O’Brien, the founder and president of EthixMerch, a Sutton company that sells what it calls ethically made merchandise, has been following the issue closely.
“I’m really mad it’s taken this long,” he said. “It took the unnecessary death of thousands of people to even get an audience to listen.”
The Bangladesh factory collapse raised awareness among consumers,but that awareness isn’t expected to change American buying habits in any significant way — or change how most American retailers do business.
“There is a higher level of consciousness,” said Robert J.S. Ross, director of the International Studies Stream at Clark University in Worcester and an expert on sweatshop labor. “How does that translate into shopping behavior? I don’t think it does in any direct sense.”
A survey by Harris Interactive found more than half of Americans don’t look at labels to see where clothes are made. Nearly 70 percent of those surveyed said they were aware of the Bangladesh factory collapse, but of them only 39 percent said they would be less likely to buy clothes made in Bangladesh as a result.
Intense competition and the availability of cheap labor in developing countries has pushed garment production from the United States to factories abroad. Just 3 percent of the clothing sold in the U.S. is made domestically, according to the American Apparel Footwear Association, while 97 percent is made abroad. China is the top country for U.S. apparel imports, followed by Vietnam, Bangladesh and Indonesia.
But there are options for people and organizations that want to buy local.
EthixMerch contracts with scores of factories across the U.S. and sells custom merchandise, from T-shirts to coffee mugs to bumper stickers, that is made in an ethical way.
“Ethical merchandise is made by people who have certain inalienable rights, and have laws that protect them, and a voice,” Mr. O’Brien said.
EthixMerch counts big labor unions and nonprofits, such as Greenpeace Inc. and the Sundance Film Festival, among its customers. “They want to make sure anything they’re putting their name on has high labor standards,” Mr. O’Brien said.
He started EthixMerch with two partners in 2006 after spending years working for bigger firms in the garment industry. The company has grown 25 percent a year since then, Mr. O’Brien said, thanks to customers concerned with the source of the products they purchase. EthixMerch draws customers through a technique called inbound marketing, sharing information about how goods are made, instead of relying on traditional advertising.
Through its partner factories, EthixMerch can supply orders for as few as 25 items or as many as 10,000. It finds factories through the AFL-CIO, which puts its union label on companies that have well-paid union employees.
T-shirts and baseball caps hang from walls and racks at EthixMerch headquarters in the Manchaug Mills complex in Sutton. They don’t look different from shirts and caps made overseas, but Mr. O’Brien knows where each one came from.
Dean Cycon, founder, owner and chief executive of Dean’s Beans in Orange, has ordered thousands of logoed T-shirts from EthixMerch for his employees, customers and coffee farmers.
“We have always made our T-shirts out of organic cotton, because we’re an organic coffee company, and we try to be consistent in the manifestation of our values in all the things we do,” Mr. Cycon said.
Each organic cotton, made-in-the-U.S. T-shirt costs a couple dollars more than a T-shirt made abroad. But to Mr. Cycon, the human and environmental costs are just as important as the dollars.
“If (businesses) are looking at the bottom line and that’s all they care about, I think they’ll buy sweatshop-made goods,” Mr. O’Brien said. “You have to make a choice, make a conscious effort to change your buying habits.”
American shoppers tend to think more about price than where and how a product was made, and so big retailers are always looking for ways to reduce their costs.
“There’s little incentive for firms to do the right thing,” said Mr. Ross, the Clark professor. “There is cutthroat competition between factories, and the firms encourage that competition by asking for extremely low bids.”
As a percentage of household expenses, Americans spend less on clothing today than they used to: 3.5 percent in 2011, down from 4.4 percent a decade earlier and 5.2 percent 15 years earlier, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Mr. Ross expects EthixMerch to continue growing because its mission resonates with a certain group of buyers, and because the custom design merchandise market overall is growing.
He also expects more public agencies to start making sweat-free purchasing, such as for police uniforms, a priority.
The habits of the average American consumer, though, are tougher to change.
“There’s such a Wal-Mart mentality,” said Dan M. Heselton, director of brand operations and co-founder of the New England Outerwear Co., which sells U.S.-made clothing and footwear. “They look for the best deal in everything, and they go to the factory outlets. … People have to be willing to not be bargain-basement shoppers for everything.
Rockport-based New England Outerwear, which launched its products just six months ago, makes “inspired” outerwear with a modern edge, targeting men age 18 to 35, Mr. Heselton said. Its clothes are made at a contract manufacturer in Everett, which has union workers, and its shoes are made in Lewiston, Maine.
It is one of just a handful of garment manufacturers left in New England.
A typical men’s shirt with the New England Outerwear name retails for $80 to $100. Shoes are priced around $300. To add a personal touch, each pair of shoes comes with a handwritten note from the person who sewed them.
“Our products are more expensive than something made in China, so we have to show people there’s a reason to do it,” Mr. Heselton said. “We have to give people a reason to buy our product.”