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Econscious President Claims Fair Trade Status. I Look Forward to the Proof.

[To find a full set of Irregular Times articles on Econscious, click here.]

You may have seen here yesterday an article by the name of “Be Wary of CafePress’ New Line of Econscious T-Shirts.” The article researched CafePress’ claim that Econscious is an apparel provider “affiliated with sustainable organizations and fair trade practices.” Econscious openly states that its apparel is manufactured in China, Vietnam, India and Pakistan, and I posted an article noting the apparent lack of Econscious’ membership in any body engaging in independent verification of fair trade conditions consistent with the declared principles on Econscious’ own web page.

In that article, I spent multiple sentences making clear exactly what I was — and was NOT — claiming:

Econscious may claim that its production is in line with “fair trade practices,” but there is no evidence I can look at with my own eyes to tell me this is or is not the case. I should also say that I have no positive evidence whatsoever of sweatshop activities by Econscious’ factory suppliers. It’s possible that the Econscious production system is stellar in its ethics…

But continued:

but that has not been demonstrated, and I hesitate to make a commitment in the dark…. If you have an interest in making ethical claims regarding the products you sell, I encourage you to approach partnership with Econscious using your own observant caution. Look carefully into what Econscious can observably, measurably guarantee.

Someone by the name of Steve Wegner left the following message:

Your represenations are not accurate . Econscious does not make t-shirts in China or Vietnam. Econsious can prove fair labor practices in their factories verifed by 3rd party inspectors. I suggest you remove your article until econscious is given the opportunity to respond.

Steve Wegner, as this whois search indicates, has some history of association with GMPC LLC, the parent company of Econscious, as an administrator of some sort. What sort of association are we talking about? An association as President of Big Accessories, sister company to Econscious as another part of the GMPC corporation. Well, I’d better consider this a not-quite-official-shot-across-the-bow WPTDR: Web Page Take Down Request. Man, do I not have the money to hire a lawyer, or what? It’s not “what.”

As I noted in the article, I have already personally contacted Econscious. I have also contacted CafePress, and indicated to both my desire to see the ability to “prove fair labor practices in their factories verified by 3rd party inspectors,” as Steve Wegner put it.

Here’s the thing: As I took pains to state in the original post I made, I have no emotional grudge, bone to pick or any other experience with Econscious that motivates me to be a “hater” of any kind. Believe me, I would love to see this evidence to “prove fair labor practices in their factories verified by 3rd party inspectors.” I mean, that’s what public transparency in fair labor practices is all about, right?

But whatever proof there may be does not appear to be public:

[Following sections rendered still true but irrelevant by follow-up communication from Econscious President (see comments section), who asserts GOTS and SA8000 certification status. See end of post for comments on GOTS and SA8000.]

According to multiple searches of the Fair Labor Association databases, neither Econscious or GMPC LLC appears to be a member with any standing of any sort in the FLA. Perhaps all this is pending, and the “proof” of association with this group formed and led by executives in the apparel industry will be forthcoming. FLA is, as activists used to point out in the late 1990s, FLAwed, but at least that would be a starting point. I’d like to see that “proof.”

Having some unspecified number of factories with WRAP membership would not count as “proof,” not only since some Econscious suppliers are by Econscious’ own indication NOT WRAP-certified, but also since WRAP certification has been criticized for its low, not-actually-independent standards of inspection. No violations of WRAP standards are publicly disclosed, and after a factory succeeds in gaining an initial WRAP certification, according to WRAP itself “it is the factory’s responsibility to ensure that it maintains full compliance throughout the period of certification.” More than that, the WRAP procedure for that initial certification is for the factory to fill out a form, complete a self-assessment, then hire its own local auditor with which it negotiates a fee either before or after the factory-hired auditor makes his or her report. This is not a procedure for robust certification of sweatshop-free conditions. To the contrary, it is a procedure that encourages secrecy and corruption. Auditors in this system are called “independent,” but when a factory negotiates compensation for the audit, independence is lost.

But this Econscious associate says that Econscious can “prove fair labor practices in their factories verified by 3rd party inspectors.” That’s good, not only considering Cafepress’ claims about Econscious production but also considering Econscious’ claims about itself. I’d love to be able to offer Econscious goods, and I’m just waiting for that documentation to “prove fair labor practices in their factories verified by 3rd party inspectors,” 3rd party inspectors who are independent and not paid by the factories in financial negotiations.

To be really big-hearted, I’ve taken down that original post I made with its citations on the matter. I’ll wait a week before I repost it. I am looking forward to that “proof” which will show the sort of “fair labor practices” in the countries of China, Vietnam, India and Pakistan that Econscious commits to in the abstract here. This would be such a marked deviation as to show some real innovation and moral leadership on the part of Econscious.

The moment I receive such “proof,” I will be sure to forward it on to everybody in the whole world to show what a great company with “fair labor practices in their factories” Econscious is. At that point I will start singing the praises of Econscious on a regular basis, because that sort of ethical practice is what so many of us are looking for, especially in nations like China, Vietnam, India and Pakistan. It sure would be a big breakthrough, and I would love to be able to sell international goods made in such a way as to treat production workers right.

You should, by the way, feel comfortable asking for the very same proof of ethical standards of production before you start a relationship with a corporation that has its apparel produced in Vietnam, China, India and Pakistan. If you don’t get that proof, then you can’t act as an informed business person.

If you don’t see such notice here, it’s because I haven’t gotten any such “proof” from Econscious yet. Stay-the-internet-equivalent-of-tuned.


Update, March 22 2009: Dale Denkensohn, President of Econscious, writes:

This is Dale, President of econscious. Below I’ve linked you to the GOTS certifications of our India and Pakistan factories. These are the only 2 factories that produce apparel for us. In addition to the GOTS certificates, I have linked you to the SA8000 certificate from our India factory. If you would like to read the full GOTS standard, please download the pdf from our website; you will see that there are explicit social criteria in the Standard that are compliant with ILO norms.
Also, from our website you can download a copy of the GOTS certificate for econscious.
If you would like to discuss any of these issues with me directly, you can contact me via email. It would be my hope that you would take your post down from the internet until we have had time to satisfy your concerns.

GOTSPAK
SA8000INDIA
GOTSINDIA

SA8000INDIA

I make a response in the comments.

The 1-page redacted GOTS certificates for a factory in India and a factory in Pakistan, plus the 1-page redacted SA8000 certificate from the factory in India, are now mirrored on the Irregular Times server.

I am sending the following e-mail to Econscious President Dale Denkensohn:

Dear Mr. Denkensohn,

A sincere thank you for your information. I have received and reviewed the one-page pdf copies of certificates, and have already read the full GOTS list of standards, the GOTS manual for implementation of standards, and supporting documents on the website of the International Working Group on GOTS.

The certificates certainly certify certification, but that is not necessarily the same as proof of fair labor practices. The example I cited earlier, of WRAP self-certification with negotiation of fees between a factory and an inspector hired by the factory, is an extreme example of non-independent certification. With your clarification that there are two factories operating on GOTS certification implemented by Control Union (India and Pakistan) and SA8000 certification implemented by SGS Italia (India), follow-up on these organizations are necessary.

GOTS PRACTICES
The GOTS standard is very heavy on the operationalization of standards for the organic character of apparel production (which I have never disputed in regards to Econscious), but it is very light on the operationalization of standards for ensuring workers’ protections, compensation and rights. The GOTS standard speaks of “possible unannounced inspections,” but not of mandated unannounced inspections. The GOTS standard has no stated protocol for the supervised or unsupervised, random or company-selected nature of worker interviews.

CONTROL UNION
The inspector through which GOTS certification has been gained, Control Union, has a business that publicly emphasizes expertise in inspection of materials, not socio-economic conditions. Indeed, even the manual for the practical interpretation of GOTS standards, which includes detailed operationalizations of chemical standards and inspection methods for them, does not bother to include any operationalizations of labor practices or inspection methods for them. This makes discovery of what those operationalizations actually are, and whether they produce a reliable result, that much more important.

[A side note: From the start of my inquiry, I have been unable to find Econscious or GMPC in a search of Control Union's database of companies obtaining certification. Is there a third-party company name or factory name I should be searching under?]

SA8000
As for the SA8000 certification, it occurs every 3 years. No mention is made in the SA8000 certification as to whether this certification occurs through scheduled or unannounced inspection, through supervised or unsupervised worker interviews, through factory-selected or factory-unselected contact which, as with the GOTS standard, is central.

See Oxfam’s report on the importance of supervised vs. unsupervised, scheduled vs. unannounced and random vs. factory-selected inspection in uncovering violations of fair labor practices.

REQUEST
Based on the opaque nature of these certificates and the unclear protocol for certification, I would like to see copies of the GOTS and SA8000 certification reports for the two factories in India and Pakistan that produce the Econscious shirts made available for sale through CafePress, including a description of the inspection methodology.

I’m asking for these documents on the basis of a good-faith effort to obtain the necessary information to evaluate Econscious’ fair labor practices. This is really what someone interested in selling Econscious t-shirts needs to know in order to verify the claim of fair labor practices in India and Pakistan. They should be made publicly available for those who are interested in fair labor claims; otherwise, resellers and consumers are left with a request that a manufacturer should be trusted without observable reason.

Thank you for willingness to communicate in this regard. For reasons stated above, I am unlikely to see SA8000 certification once every three years as an indication of fair labor practice. But if I am able to review GOTS inspection reports for these two factories, evaluate findings and methodology, and publicly communicate their contents — and if their contents indicate unannounced inspection with interviews and data collection not choreographed, supervised or restricted by involved factories — then I will happily become an ardent Econscious booster.

Kindest Regards,

Jim Cook
Irregular Times


Update, March 26 2009: I have not yet received GOTS reports from Econscious President Dale Denkensohn, but I have received three e-mails containing the following attached documents which I am happy to share with you:

FLO Certification for factory in India, valid through March 30, 2009
SA 8000 Standards for 2008
STR Audit for Pakistan factory, 2008
STR Audit Results: Pay for the 20 workers in Pakistan factory in Pakistani rupees

There is a fair amount of information here, some of it rather cryptic. For instance, FLO Certification for the Indian factory Econscious uses (expiring in a week) has been granted for paragraphs 1-7 of section C of the Seed Cotton Fairtrade standards. Follow the link to read paragraphs 1-7 of section C and you’ll see those are not the paragraphs containing the central paragraphs dealing with worker rights and compensation. The most central paragraphs dealing with worker protection are paragraphs 9-10 and following.

In another example, Mr. Denkensohn sent me the SA8000 Standards for 2008 as an example of his commitment. As discussed above, SA8000 certification requires inspection certification [see update of 3/27 below] only once every three years; Mr. Denkensohn referred to the SA8000 standard, saying that “in there it discusses announced and unannounced visits.” Indeed, the standard does discuss unannounced visits, in one sentence, without stating whether such unannounced visits are required or not.

The third set of documents sent to me are from an STR audit of the factory Econscious uses in Pakistan. These provide the most detailed information sent to me yet, and I encourage you to read both the report itself and the monthly income spreadsheet for the 20 workers at the factory. The audit report begins with an indication of its own limitations:

STR represents that it has exercised reasonable commercial effort to perform this Audit. In performing the Audit, however, STR’s auditors have been constrained by the following factors:

1. The Facility Audit is based on what the auditors have personally seen, been told and upon the inspection of documents provided to them. The auditors have not made any additional investigation to verify the information provided to them.
2. STR auditors have accepted as true what they have been told by management and employees of the facility.
3. STR auditors cannot ascertain whether they have been given unlimited access to employees, or whether employees have been coached as to how to respond to questions.
4. STR auditors have accepted as valid documentation provided to them by facility officials, and have made no independent investigation to determine the accuracy or completeness of the documentation. STR auditors do not know if material documentation has been withheld by facility officials.
5. STR auditors cannot verify that they have been allowed access to all of the facility, ancillary buildings and grounds associated with the facility.

I should take the space to note that Econscious President Dale Denkensohn has been polite to the point of courteousness, communicative, and willing to commit to getting the GOTS reports to me (and you) eventually and getting these other reports in the meantime. He has stopped asking for this post to be removed and has sent on these reports even after I have indicated to him my intention of sharing them with anyone who is interested. That’s encouraging activity for a corporate executive and Mr. Denkensohn should be commended for it.

That said, I still don’t see the confirmation I’m looking for: a demonstration of regular, unannounced, full-access visits to Econscious factories with verification of adequate worker treatment and compensation. We’re getting closer, but we’re not quite there.

My current task is to examine pay reports for the factory Econscious uses in Pakistan and to compare compensation — which is at the legal minimum wage for Pakistan — to various indicators of the cost of living in the city of Lahore, Pakistan, where the factory is located. That task is underway, and you should be able to see some written results later today.


Update, March 27 2009:

See What does minimum wage get you in Lahore, Pakistan? and What is considered a living wage in Lahore, Pakistan? for initial attempts to provide some context to the wage data for the factory in Lahore, Pakistan supplying Econscious shirts. The former measures the minimum wage versus a middle-class professional articulation of the cost of living in Lahore; the latter is asks methodological questions and references the SA8000 Guidance Document (unfortunately only available through purchase here, as I’ve done) and a 2000 paper on the subject by David Steele of ETI. More to come on this.

Through review of the SA8000 Guidance Document and a tip from Econscious President Dale Denkensohn, it has come to my attention that while SA8000 certification occurs just once every three years, SA8000 inspections occur more often… sort of. “Surveillance audits” on a semiannual basis are to be carried out by SA8000 inspectors as a means of follow-up. The SA8000 Guidance Document indicates that such surveillance audits will each cover portions, but not all, of a workplace, in a sort of rotation with the idea that by the time recertification time rolls around after three years, all aspects of and people within the workplace will have been audited at one time or another. Whether these audits are mandated to be unannounced is unclear from the SA8000 Guidance Document; Econscious President Denkensohn declares in an e-mail that for the factory in India supplying shirts, “surveillance audits are conducted once every 6 months . every 2nd audit is an unannounced audit”. This makes the matter of getting actual SA8000 reports and discovering the conditions in that factory in India more important.


Update, April 21 2009:

In the last communication I have received from Econscious President Dale Denkensohn, he sent on a GOTS 2008 Audit Report (download) for the factory in Lahore, Pakistan that produces Econscious garments. When reading it, pay close attention to its emphasis (clearly on organic production), on what it says regarding worker compensation (minimum wage plus a small end-of-year bonus), and on what basis it reports this — the company’s wages book and its complaints book. No interviews of workers or independent verification of worker compensation is indicated. It is no wonder that the factory has not attained FLO certification, since that would require movement from minimum wage to a living wage that meets “basic needs” as discussed in other articles here.

3 comments to Econscious President Claims Fair Trade Status. I Look Forward to the Proof.

  • This is Dale, President of econscious. Below I’ve linked you to the GOTS certifications of our India and Pakistan factories. These are the only 2 factories that produce apparel for us. In addition to the GOTS certificates, I have linked you to the SA8000 certificate from our India factory. If you would like to read the full GOTS standard, please download the pdf from our website; you will see that there are explicit social criteria in the Standard that are compliant with ILO norms.
    Also, from our website you can download a copy of the GOTS certificate for econscious.
    If you would like to discuss any of these issues with me directly, you can contact me via email. It would be my hope that you would take your post down from the internet until we have had time to satisfy your concerns.

    GOTSPAK
    SA8000INDIA
    GOTSINDIA

  • Jim

    A sincere thank you for your information. Let’s be clear about what you’ve provided to everyone reading this: three one-page pdf files of certificates.

    I have already read the full GOTS list of standards. I encourage everyone else to read them as well. The web page of the International Working Group on Global Organic Textile Standard is here.

    The GOTS standard speaks of “possible unannounced inspections,” but not of mandated unannounced inspections. The GOTS standard has no stated protocol for the supervised or unsupervised, random or company-selected nature of worker interviews. The GOTS standard is very heavy on the operationalization of standards for the organic character of apparel production (which I have never disputed in regards to Econscious), but it is very light on the operationalization of standards for ensuring workers’ protections, compensation and rights. The inspector through which GOTS certification has been gained, Control Union, has a business that publicly emphasizes expertise in inspection of materials, not socio-economic conditions. Indeed, even the manual for the practical interpretation of GOTS standards, which includes detailed operationalizations of chemical standards and inspection methods for them, does not bother to include any operationalizations of labor practices or inspection methods for them. This makes discovery of what those operationalizations actually are, and whether they produce a reliable result, that much more important.

    [A side note: From the start of my inquiry, I have been unable to find Econscious or GMPC in a search of Control Union's database of companies obtaining certification. Is there a third-party company name I should be searching under?]

    As for the SA8000 certification, it occurs every 3 years. No mention is made in the SA8000 certification as to whether this certification occurs through scheduled or unannounced inspection, through supervised or unsupervised worker interviews, through factory-selected or factory-unselected contact which, as with the GOTS standard, is central.

    An excerpt from Oxfam’s report on the subject gives a few examples of what is possible with infrequent, scheduled and/or supervised visits:

    Caught between intense production pressure and inspections of labour standards, some factories rely on fooling inspectors – and when visits are quick, announced in advance,
    and conducted by foreigners, it is relatively easy. Double book keeping hides the long hours. Gita, working in a leading Sri Lankan garment factory, each month receives a paper bag that has her pay slip printed on it – but with no mention of her overtime hours. Inside the bag, with her earnings, is another piece of paper. She explained, ‘This is the overtime pay. The company does not include overtime payment in the pay-slip itself, because then the people coming to the factory would know that we have been working more than the overtime hours allowed. We have been instructed by the company not to show this piece of paper when they come to question us.’

    Coaching and bribing workers is common. One pregnant Thai worker described the instructions from the personnel manager before an inspection. ‘He said the customer will ask “Do you work overtime?” and we have to say “No!”’ But in reality pregnant workers work overtime and on Sunday as well. We sometimes work until two in the morning or till dawn, but we have to say that we work overtime only until eight in the evening … If we lie, we will get paid 400 baht [two days’ wages].’

    I am not saying that is the circumstance in your factories. I am saying I do not know, and a piece of paper from GOTS or SA8000 is not going to tell me, either. Of course pictures of certificates with factory names blacked out is also not sufficient. I’d like to see the reports, including inspection methodology. I am sending you an e-mail asking you questions related to the process of inspection for your specific factories and regarding relevant inspection reports.


    About taking down this post: this post makes no affirmative claims about Econscious except regarding the nature of the information forthcoming from Econscious. I’m not slandering any person or company. I’m just asking for information. I do not see why a post asking for information before making a decision about working with Econscious should be taken down. I will continue to transparently update the post with available information.

    I encourage your lawyers to send me a message (which, yes, I will post) indicating why asking for information lays me open to civil or criminal liability. Otherwise, I don’t think I should take this post down.

    Let’s look at it from your perspective. If it can be shown that Econscious’ t-shirts are really made in factories that respect workers and workers’ rights, then Econscious wins. If this can be shown, you will gain not only a new seller in the states, but also a forceful advocate on the internet who will regularly sing your praises. You and your fellow executive Steve Wegner say this can be shown. I’m looking forward to that… but no, we’re not there yet.

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