Earlier this week, I gave Jack Lieberman of ProgressiveRags.com a call. I was curious to find out where his shirts featuring various liberal messages came from. “The shirts we make ourselves are mainly Gildan,” Lieberman said, and of his shirts in general he said that some but not came from American Apparel. Most of the shirts, Lieberman indicated, come from countries other than the United States — “all different countries” including China and Haiti. “Some of those come from China,” he said — a nation that the Department of Labor reports uses significant amounts of forced labor and child labor in the production of apparel. ProgressiveRags’ shirts featuring rhinestones, Lieberman indicated, are particularly likely to come from China.
I asked Jack Lieberman up front why he was using shirts made in labor-unfriendly conditions, and Lieberman declared with some feeling, “I want to go with American Apparel only, but we need to do what helps us with the cash flow.” He told me that when people aligned with various left-aligned social movements approach him for t-shirt deals, they always demand low prices: $5 a shirt, $3 a shirt. If he doesn’t sell shirts made in worker-unfriendly conditions, he told me, the “movement people” and “movement groups” would simply go to another t-shirt printer and get a lower price with sweatshop t-shirts made there. Lieberman laughed when he recalled selling t-shirts at a recent Social Forum meeting, where people snapped up shirts with socialist and communist imagery on them. Attendees loved the cheap shirts. “Only one person asked me where the shirts were from,” Lieberman told me.
We ended the phone call with Jack Lieberman telling me he wanted to start producing shirts made in more ethical conditions — “I would love to be pressured into this” — but that for his business, what he’d do ultimately would depend on what customers asked for. Just because I called him, Lieberman made his own spontaneous commitment: “I will in the next week begin a line with American Apparel.”
I’ll check on the fulfillment of that commitment next week. Until then, consider whose responsibility it is to create the better world that you and I and Jack Lieberman say we want to see. Is the responsibility for working conditions that of a producer, a customer, or someone else (who?)?
(Click here to contact Progressive Rags and have your own conversation about shirt sourcing.)