(Published in the IHT).
Ruth Meza-Orozco, 23, works six days a week in a Taiwanese clothing factory in Managua’s Free Trade Zone. On Sundays, she studies. "My salary doesn’t help me with anything," said Meza-Orozco, who has been working in the Free Trade Zone since she was 18. "I don’t even have a house."
The average hourly wage of apparel workers in Nicaragua is about 27 cents. Meza-Orozco would like to do something else, but in Nicaragua, there is little else to do. "In this country, the Free Trade Zone is the only kind of work," she said.
In the last decade, Meza-Orozco’s problems have become a topic of conversation in even the highest echelons of the fashion industry. "The company asks me regularly to discuss these issues," said Christophe Girard, director of fashion strategy at LVMH and deputy mayor for culture of Paris. "I think it has become a more common debate."
These days, conscience itself has become a selling point, and many companies have come to believe that hurting the environment or people is, in the long run, a bad business plan. Despite the sea change, which has lately been bolstered by the faltering economy and post-Sept. 11 somberness, fundamental tensions between the business of fashion and the demands of social responsibility remain.
But on the outskirts of the industry, a new generation of designers, small manufacturers, and idiosyncratic retailers are finding creative ways to bring conscience into the core of their business.
According to a recent survey done for CSR Europe, a business group that encourages social responsibility, 70 percent of European consumers say that a company’s commitment to social responsibility is important when buying a product or service, and 1 in 5 would be willing to pay more for products that are socially and environmentally responsible.
"Civilized companies know it is quite dangerous and absolutely irresponsible to have things made in countries where human rights are not respected," said Girard.
Partly in response to the flurry of public interest, an ever-growing number of companies issue social responsibility reports, which are neither mandatory nor standardized.
"Social reporting can be anything the company wants to report," said Esther Dehaan, coordinator for the Clean Clothes Campaign, a labor rights group based in Amsterdam. "It can be advertising really."
Last year, the Clean Clothes Campaign commissioned a study of the working conditions at factories in India and Sri Lanka producing for Vendex KBB, the largest retail group in the Netherlands. The study concluded that, despite the fact that Vendex KBB has a code of labor standards and monitoring systems in place, many violations of the company’s own standards persisted.
Peter van Bakkum, a spokesman for Vendex KBB, said the company was working to implement a more effective auditing system, but added that monitoring 10,000 constantly changing suppliers scattered across the globe is a quixotic task. "It is an illusion to think that you can set up a system of auditing which is 100 percent ideal," he said.
In addition to verification problems, there is the fickleness of the industry to contend with. Imitation of Christ attracted a lot of attention at its autumn/winter show last year for showing a film of abused laborers and asking invitees to make donations at the door to the charities Sweatshop Watch and Free the Children.
This September, the label’s New York show featured topless girls vacuuming and models doing the Hokey Cokey. Human rights, for Imitation of Christ, was a passing piece of performance art.
For the most part, human rights and environmental issues remain separate from the creative side of fashion, a situation Girard thinks is for the best. "I’m not really crazy about these kinds of things getting mixed up," he said. "Human rights should be everybody’s problem, and I don’t see why a fashion designer should project any message in his collection. But once you are famous and public, you should use your space to push what rights you believe in."
Marc Jacobs does just that. At his recent New York show, Jacobs collected donations for Cancer Care, the latest charity to benefit from his long history of corporate largesse.
But for some, such separation just won’t do. Ethical Threads, a British nonprofit company, bought 3,000 T-shirts for Billy Bragg’s British tour last spring from a women’s sewing cooperative in La Nueva Vida, a shantytown on the outskirts of Managua with 90 percent unemployment.
"The only way to circumvent the sweatshop conditions is to go to a workers’ cooperative," said Geoff Martin, chief executive officer of Ethical Threads. "In the straight commercial sector people will give you all kinds of promises about how great the conditions are. The reality is something different. With a workers’ cooperative, what you see is what you get."
Ethical Threads, which also employs workers’ cooperatives in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, has sold a total of 15,000 T-shirts, which cost the consumer about £1 ($1.50) extra.
Others have been experimenting with the same model. Last March, teamX Inc., a worker-owned casual apparel manufacturer in Los Angeles, opened.
"We set out to demonstrate that apparel can be made in the United States in factories that are the antithesis of sweatshops, with workers belonging to a union, owning the company, and being paid livable wages," said Doug Waterman, president of teamX.
Funded with $1.25 million from Ben Cohen, co-founder of Ben Jerry’s Ice Cream, the company employs 48 factory workers, mostly immigrants from Mexico and Central America, who make an average of $8.91 an hour. The factory can produce about 20,000 T-shirts a week, which it markets to universities, labor unions, and religious groups under the SweatX label. Sales to date are $500 million.
But because of their corporate structure, cooperatives like teamX cannot issue voting shares of stock, and have difficulty attracting additional capital to support their growth and expansion.
In 1998, Mark Bloom, mastermind behind the hip, streetwise Jo Komodo brand, launched a line of clothes called Free Tibet. Bloom said some British retailers told him it was too controversial to stock, but even those American outlets that picked up the line soon dropped it.
"I can’t really trust the buyers," said Bloom. "I’d rather go straight to the public than have the fashion buyers telling me we did it last season, we don’t want to do it again." Next month Komodo will open a store called Tibet Dream in Covent Garden. All the merchandise will have a Tibetan message, and part of the profits will be donated to a pro-Tibetan charity.
Also in London, Jessica Ogden, who recently won the £25,000 Vidal Sassoon prize for cutting-edge talent, has built a bit of her social vision right into her clothes, which feature a lot of vintage material. "The thing that interests me in using older fabrics is they’ve already got a history," she said. "It is only passing through your hands."
By using old fabrics, Ogden doesn’t have to produce new ones. "When I’m using old fabrics, it is about the beauty of them," she said. "But it is also a waste not to use them."
Like SweatX, Jo Komodo, and Ethical Threads, Ogden is pushing against the grain. Her fine old fabrics don’t appeal to much of the high-end luxury market, and more broadly, her focus is on clothes rather than fashion. Ogden builds things to last, and that long-term vision is at odds with the driving seasonal cycle of the industry.
"I am looking at quality overall, not just can we sell it this season and forget about it," she said. "Hopefully somebody will keep that garment and hold onto it."
Erika Kinetz is a free-lance journalist based in New York.