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Is Alternative Apparel Really Sweatshop Free?

I was looking into a new site through which to sell political t-shirts, in addition to CafePress, and saw that this operation sells shirts made by a company called Alternative Apparel. Alternative, huh? Why that sounds like it might be progressive, and if it sounds like it might be progressive, then they just might run a good solid operation here in the United States without outsourcing labor to abusive overseas sweatshop factories. Cool, huh?

Well, maybe not so cool.

Here’s what the Alternative Apparel “No Sweat” policy says:

“We require all manufacturing to comply with the applicable laws and regulations of the localities, states, and countries in which they operate. We visit each factory at least four times a year to monitor production and to insure the quality of life for our employees. We enforce total compliance with local labor laws that include child labor regulations as well as adequate living wages and the most current emergency equipment. Currently, we have manufacturing facilities in five different countries, including the United States. We provide not only employment, but also lifelong job skills to those who are lacking opportunity. We plan to continue to improve the lives of our employees globally and provide a positive and productive work environment.

Sweat-shop free has been a marketing tactic used by domestic competitors to mislead buyers that all imports are made in sweat-shops. That is simply not the case. We at Alternative use only the highest quality factories with the highest skilled employees. We are committed to insuring the well being of our employees.”

Here’s what I can pull out of this short statement:

  • Alternative Apparel manufactures clothing in four countries other than the United States of America, and it doesn’t want to tell us what those countries are. They use outsourced overseas labor.
  • Alternative Apparel says their factories follow the labor laws of the countries where they operate. The problem is that many countries have terrible labor laws.
  • Alternative Apparel says that they check four times a year to make sure that factories have no sweatshop labor. What’s happening for the rest of the year?

    When it comes right down to it, clothing manufacturers that use sweatshop labor, like Hanes and Fruit of the Loom, use the very same kind of language that Alternative Apparel does.

    Is it possible that Alternative Apparel somehow manages to run a clean, sweatshop-free operation, in spite of the odds? Yes, it’s possible. But, as someone who runs a progressive political business, I’m not going to risk working with them. Their language is too ambiguous, leaving too much room for reasonable skepticism. I need to tell the people who buy the shirts that we sell here that I am 100% certain that they’re made here in the USA in shops with good labor conditions.

    So, if Alternative Apparel wants progressives like me to run some business their way, they’re going to have to get a lot more specific about how they can guarantee that their clothes are not made in conditions that exploit workers overseas.

  • 21 comments to Is Alternative Apparel Really Sweatshop Free?

    • anonymous

      As someone who has lived for an extended period in one of the developing countries the U.S. has a trade relationship with, I have some mixed feelings about this type of purist approach.

      I know someone who as a Peace Corps Volunteer was assigned to work with a non-governmental organization (read not-for-profit)that provided jobs for women in a small village. The women sat for long periods of time in uncomfortable positions weaving traditonal textiles, performing repetitive motions, and getting paid something like thirty-five cents a day. By our standards the jobs were unacceptible.

      But in a country where you can buy a piece of bread for two cents, this was a meaningful income. The women had higher status within the family unit becasue they were able to bring in outside income. It also gave them a choice. Before that, they had no choices.

      Besides a country’s own laws (which may not be enforced), a country trading with the U.S. must often comply with trade agreements as well. Democratic members of congress have been agressive in writing fair labor provisions into these trade agreements. Trading with these countries can give them some incentive to improve labor conditions. If they are inspected even four times a year, what scurrying around there must be to get ready for this visit!

    • Well, anonymous, there’s a lot of supposition in that comment. You suppose that it’s worth it for Alternative Apparel’s overseas workers, but the fact is that Alternative Apparel doesn’t supply us with the information we need to make that judgment. Why? Why won’t they even tell us which countries they use for cheap labor?

      Sorry, but when there’s that much uncertainty about where a shirt comes from, given the record of terrible sweatshop conditions in factories run by major garment manufacturers, I’m not willing to take it on blind faith that Alternative Apparel is doing the right thing.

    • Jim

      Anonymous,

      It’s worth noting that the same justifications were made for the continuing system of slavery in the United States. Sure, slavery’s defenders granted, the slaves work in conditions that most educated white folks wouldn’t consider sufficient for themselves. But consider the alternative, they’d say: without the owners to give slaves food, water and shelter in exchange for their labor, they’d be even worse off! So, see, the system of slavery is actually good for the slaves, because it marks an improvement in their living conditions over the alternative.

      Can you find the problem in such an argument? Can you see how the same problem applies to justifications of sweatshop labor?

      There are plants overseas that engage in production ethically. But given the large number of plants overseas that don’t do so, I think jclifford’s right to be cautious about Alternative Apparel’s a-factual claims.

    • Anonymous

      Without getting too far into detail and without having “permission” to speak for the company, I work for Alternative Apparel and we would not do business with anyone who does not treat people like people. That includes checking to make sure that the people who are making are clothes are as comfortable and happy as those who are wearing them. You can believe it or not.

    • Jim

      Really? “As comfortable and happy as those who are wearing them?” They have iPods and drive Range Rovers send their kids to college? You’re right: I can believe it or not.

      • Berto

        Are you trying to be an ass? Of course he didn’t mean
        a)the richest of the US
        B)That happiness is based off material goods – like SUV’s and iPods. ha

    • me

      all of the factories overseas follow our guidelines first and foremost. the factories that produce our shirts are hi tech factories, not haynes style or nike. all the employees are treated well and earn well over the minimum wage in those countries. we don’t keep secrets as to where they are made, we will tell you. but we don’t give out the names of those factories because we don’t want people trying to cramp our style. thanks for starting up nothing.

    • Al

      “Thanks for starting nothing,” eh? In my experience, any company that TRULY uses fair trade labor, or union labor, or non-sweatshop labor, goes well out of their way to advertize that fact. So, since Alternative Apparel does not do that, I assume they’re hiding something. Until they prove otherwise, I won’t touch their products. The burden of Proof is on you, AA, not the consumer.

    • Very credible too, signing that statement “me”. I could just as well leave a message here claiming to be someone from Alternative Apparel, signing it “me”, and saying everything’s cool, to just trust “me”.

      Sorry, “me”. You need to do better than that. Give us proof. The garment industry has too long a history of abusing people for trust to be enough.

    • Freddy

      Instead of talking about how Alternative Apparel must be hiding something or why they don’t say what other countries they manufacture in, why don’t you just give them an email or call them? Maybe they’ll be able to give you some proof or maybe not.

    • susie

      i have the same suspicions about alternative apparel — i think if their labor were fair or credible, they’d be using it as a marketing tactic, too, instead of accusing competitors of poor marketing strategies.

    • Aaron

      So, did you ever find a site to print political t-shirts that was up to your standards? I’m looking for the same thing and having a hard time…

      Thanks for any tips!

    • Iroquois

      zazzle.com has added the same American Apparel brand that skreened.com carries.

    • Jim

      Zazzle.com also offers other brands with dubious labor histories, and does NOT allow you to make those brands unavailable for sale. Zazzle may be bigger, but Skreened’s model is superior in that it offers you more control.

    • Anonymous

      Alternative gives out a list of their countries. They work in Thailand, Honduras, Peru, El Salvador, Dominican Republic, USA, India, Nicaragua and China.

      Now the question is, if they only adhere to these countries policies, are the policies in these countries any good?

    • Matt

      This is interesting to me as I am in the midst of starting my own clothing company. Up until this point, we were planning on using AA’s products for our upcoming line of clothing.

      And from what i’ve read, AA seems to be a HUGE turn off to the consumers. As a consumer, who are some wholesales that you are 100% confident and comdfortable with?

    • Hello!

      This discussion may be over and dead already, but just in case there’s anyone out there like me who stumbles across this resource sometimes in 2019, here’s a page I found while searching for ethically sourced tshirts: http://ethixmerch.com/prices

      I was looking at using Alternative Apparel and then read the following: http://ethixmerch.com/content/your-ethical-guide-custom-t-shirts-american-apparel-and-alternative-apparel

      It does appear that AA has made some improvements since 2006; I’ve finally found a “print on demand” company that is in line with the purpose of my business, but still limited finding ethically sourced shirts.

      Cheers
      Dana

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