Progressive Consumerism

This article on Reason about a new generation of “socially aware” clothing manufacturers who are trying to buck the trend and keep their work in shops in the U.S. that actually take care of their workers. The article itself is quite positive about American Apparel, and it poses some interesting questions about the offshoring of the textile industry.

There is a double edge sword when avoiding offshoring completely. If you’re trying to help Third World workers who are being abused in sweatshops and you simply decide to not use those sweatshops, you’re not really helping those folks. They’ve got work, and if it has to be in a sweat shop, well, so be it. And if you choose to “help” those folks in the Third World by exclusively buying clothing from American Apparel, well, you’re not really helping them. You are helping folks in L.A. who work for AA though.

So what should companies do? One thought is an approach much like what Timbuk2 took when the design of some of the products was too complex for their shop in San Francisco. The owners actively sought factories in Asia that did good work and treated their workers fairly. And the owners make regular trips to the factory to be sure that those standards are being consistently upheld. In some ways, at the moment, Timbuk2 is a paradigm of smart, progressive, socially aware production — they are still making their messenger bags by hand in the SF shop, and they are doing their part for the global economy by taking care of their workers-for-hire in Asia.

If you’d like to read more about Timbuk2’s manufacturing process, check out this.