Sunday, November 23, 2003

More Good Guys From Vermont

An interesting piece by Danielle Stein about good guy Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry's company SweatX. He's started a clothing line that is out to show the garment industry we don't have to manufacture clothing based on a worker-destructive sweatshop paradigm:

Thank goodness for Ben and Jerry. They are the men who have brought us Chubby Hubby, Cherry Garcia, and Festivus (a tasty new flavor named in honor of George Costanza's made-up family holiday.) They have given us chocolate-covered pretzels in our ice cream and have made us feel good about consuming a pint chock full of brownies and cookie dough merely by labeling it "Frozen Yogurt." They've given us counterculture references for flavor names and quirky commercials filmed in Vermont. And now they're giving us fashion.

Well actually, only Ben (he does have a last name -- Cohen) gets credit for this one. The ice cream king, who has long been involved in social activism, has combined his politics and his entrepreneurial talents in a clothing line called SweatX. The company's goal is to create clothing while giving workers quality of life -- paying them $8.50 per hour (much more than the average sweatshop factory employee receives) plus benefits, a pension, and profit sharing as well as top-of-the-line equipment and a pleasant environment in which to work. SweatX is out to prove that it's possible to be successful while still treating employees well. And in Los Angeles, a hotbed of sweatshops where workers are regularly paid less than minimum wage for long hours in unsafe conditions, this is a crucial message.

This new clothing firm, which will produce casual clothing like T-shirts and sweatpants, is perhaps the most hopeful step in the fight against sweatshop labor. Because there are many concerned people out there -- myself included -- who might deplore the way most of our clothing is produced, but who have few apparel alternatives. For instance, I know that Nike is a glaring example of abhorrent labor practices, so I avoid their products. But I don't have the statistics on most of the other clothing lines out there, and I would believe that many of the companies I do patronize are paying South American workers 15 cents per hour to make my cable-knit sweater. And for the average consumer who does not spend her life as a labor activist, it is difficult to avoid the products of all offending companies.

But SweatX gives us an entirely new angle from which to wage this battle. Instead of asking consumers to stop buying from companies with less-than-perfect labor policies, it invites us to support one that passes the test. Instead of making activism require a decrease in consumerism (which is an unsuccessful tactic in our consumer-driven society), it allows us to make a statement and simultaneously get cool stuff! Throwing a little support in SweatX's direction contributes to its success, and the financial success of a garment business that practices humane treatment of workers would serve as proof to the industry that its trespasses are inexcusable. And if the industry loses its justification -- that it needs cheap labor to profit -- sweatshops are on the way out.

SweatX seeks to market its clothing in sports shops and college bookstores, drawing on the recent increase in anti-sweatshop activism on campuses across the country (as is evident here at Cornell). But the director of the California Fashion Association, Ilse Metchek, was quoted in the L.A. Times expressing her skepticism that students would support the project: "Students protest. They yell and scream. But when push comes to shove, they go to Wal-Mart and buy clothing made in Saipan."

It's time to prove people like Metchek wrong. Many of us may not have enough willpower or alternatives to shun big clothing labels like Nike, but this does not mean we won't rally around causes we support, especially if they require little effort (often a prerequisite for college student participation) and result in cute additions to our wardrobes. Ben Cohen and his colleagues have created something that has both innovation and integrity, and they deserve our support.

Ben Cohen's SweatX has the potential to revolutionize labor practices in the garment industry. If successful, it could become the prototype for other companies who could no longer claim they can't turn profits without exploiting workers. But it's a new project and has yet to prove itself. As its success would mean progress for labor practices, its failure would mean regression. Support of this endeavor -- in the form of consumerism, publicity, whatever -- by college students is essential. It could make worker's rights the flavor of the future.