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No Sweat: How to Build an Upright, Open Practice Garment Industry

This article was written by Sarah Rich in February 2007. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.

No%20Sweat.jpgThe larger the garment industry has become, the more apparel companies have operated opaque businesses and employed questionable (if not abominable) practices in order to keep up with the goliath scale of manufacturing. At this point, most consumers have at least partial awareness of the perilous conditions of sweatshops, but the majority of clothes still come from behind a veil; and because consumers know how limited our choices are for goods with a transparent backstory, we don't always choose to try to see what's behind that closed source.

We all know that a dollar paid is a vote cast for the kind of world we want. So if we have more choices about where to direct our dollars, we'll have greater incentive and ability to voice our desires through our purchases. One company that wants to increase our choice when it comes to clothing is No Sweat Apparel, a Boston-based start-up committed to producing sweatshop-free, 100% union-made apparel. No Sweat bills itself as the first "open source" apparel manufacturer, meaning that they openly expose and share what's behind their product, and they invite cooperation in keeping the sources open and improving the inner-workings of those sources, to produce a better end result.

Besides committing to upright, open practices, No Sweat is up to some really interesting stuff besides. I spoke recently with CEO Adam Neiman, about the company's newest manufacturing facility, located in Bethlehem, in the West Bank territory that lies at the heart of Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The factory employs over one hundred unionized Palestinian textile workers making all organic fair-trade cotton tee-shirts. The textile industry in Palestine has been depressed for some time. An article in the Israeli news source Haaretz cited statistics from the general secretary of the Palestine General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU), saying that, "the textile business in the West Bank and Gaza employed some 37,000 Palestinian union workers before the intifada. The number now stands at about 10,000 to 12,000 employees - less than a third of what it was before 2000."

Neiman, who is a Jewish American, told me that he has gotten words of support from governments on both sides:

Since everyone agrees, Jews, Christians & Muslims, that more good jobs in Palestine will help the situation, it seems logical to do the one thing we can do that everyone agrees on. It’s a small piece of common ground. But there’s a chance that if we build on that, it just might turn out to be the most precious piece of real estate in the Middle East today.
Economic development on the West Bank will never be a substitute for a diplomatic settlement. Still, a concrete act of good faith can help build good will between peoples and help build the prosperity needed to sustain the peace to come...this is something millions of ordinary people can do to build bridges. If the 1st step is very well received will more people be more encouraged to take another step? It’s quite possible. At the very least, we help one good factory, its management and workers to survive and thrive, in Palestine.

Last week, al Jazeera released a new video newscast on No Sweat's Bethlehem facility. It gives a good, brief overview of the practices inside the facility and the sentiment of the local owners and managers. All of the clothing coming from this factory will bear a tag saying: "Made in Bethlehem."

No Sweat also produces clothing at facilities in North and Central America and Indonesia. They say on their website: "We believe the only way to protect workers anywhere is to defend workers' rights everywhere. We will source from any country we can find that has good shops, producing good quality, competitively priced garments, represented by independent trade unions. Extremely repressive countries, without exception, have no independent trade unions."

Neiman told me that No Sweat is in the business of facilitating virtuous circles through the connections they build between consumers, union laborers, factory owners, and apparel companies who follow their lead:

Let's talk about the virtuous circle a unionized work force has created in every somewhat successful instance of democratic capitalism we've ever seen in history. Workers get well paid so kids get to finish school. They have health care which creates more jobs for middle class doctors and nurses, etc. Those doctors hire accountants, lawyers, etc, creating more middle class jobs for the workers' kids who got to go to school. Before you know it you have a self-sustaining educated middle class. But it's better than that. A substandard factory next to a union shop has to improve conditions for their workers or get organized. And the unionized factory owners and the unions lobby the government to raise wages, benefits and working conditions across the board to level the playing field. That's not theory, that's actually how it worked in the developed world.
But it all starts with someone proving (again) that doing the right thing is just as profitable or more so than doing wrong. If No Sweat succeeds, we'll have many imitators. Most folks would rather do the right thing. They're just convinced it will cost them. They need to see that right actions bring right results.

No Sweat: Open Source Apparel is part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on October 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.

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