Building a Bridge Between Ethical Garment Manufacturers and Purchasers

An Interview with Ethix Merch CEO Daniel Cardozo

Daniel Cardozo, CEO of Ethix Merch and a member of the Buy Your Values UCLA Steering Committee, sat down with Labor 411’s Sahid Fawaz to talk about ethical manufacturing in the garment industry.

SF:  Thank you for taking the time to talk with us. Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself and Ethix Merch?

DC: Some identities I have: Californian, Anti-sweatshop Activist, Cultural Jew, Devoted Stepdad, Aspiring Anti-Racist. Sign me up for all that stuff in the Kindness is Everything poster. Ethix Merch is a business whose mission is to connect socially-responsible organizations with ethically-sourced merchandise (e.g. “swag”). We’ve been doing that since 2006 in lots of different ways. In recent years, we are helping to bring about more substantial changes in the global supply chains by bringing together lots of different groups in the same arenas — like universities, governments and progressive nonprofits — to build alliances that leverage their collective purchasing power. Buy Your Values (our partnership with Labor 411) is one of our most exciting and innovative examples of this private/nonprofit partnership model. 

SF:  In what ways have you and Ethix Merch been involved in the Buy Your Values UCLA campaign?

DC: Ethix Merch helped to start BYV-UCLA through a collaboration with Labor 411. (I serve on the board of the Labor 411 foundation.) Our role in Buy Your Values is to serve whatever for-profit roles are needed in order to push the campaigns forward. For example, in order for students to actualize the latent demand for UCLA swag that protects human rights and the planet, someone needs to connect with the ethical vendors who are often small, and don’t have experience supplying large organizations like UCLA with retail apparel. Ethix serves that role as the “connector” between Buy Your Values, the ethical producers who need support from committed ethical buyers, and the administration who has a set of bureaucratic procedures that need to be followed by anyone who wants to print the UCLA logo on merchandise. 

SF:  What positive trends are you seeing in the ethical purchasing movement in the garment industry? And what challenges does the movement face?

DC: There’s a lot to be excited about! One really positive trend is that large buyers (in government, corporate, and nonprofit) are getting a lot more organized about their purchasing criteria, especially around the crucial issue of environmental sustainability. Increasingly, these large buyers are straying away from “greenwashing” (for example, by making dubious claims around carbon neutrality based on carbon offsets) and I think a lot of that comes from hiring staff who are committed to making a real and authentic difference. 

There is also a trend toward incorporating labor rights into the very definition of sustainability. After all, part of the reason to keep our planet healthy is so that people can be protected from climate chaos, and polluted air and waterways. It’s hard for workers to enjoy the fruits of the environmental movement if they are suffering with poverty wages, discrimination, and unsafe/unsanitary conditions that are unfortunately still business as usual in the garment industry.

And that’s the challenge. Incorporating labor rights into sustainability is a good start, but it needs to be adopted much more widely, and workers need to be brought into these efforts more directly. Workers in every industry are the ones often best suited to understanding the environmental impact of business, and they are always the best ones to articulate what is needed to make their own jobs sustainable for themselves and their families. 

Buy Your Values UCLA is a great example of an alliance of stakeholders that is staking a strong claim for worker rights and empowerment to be a necessary condition for any definition of sustainability. 

Another challenge the ethical purchasing movement faces is price expectations. After decades of globalization and the global “race to the bottom,” customers are accustomed to a certain price point which is not feasible when you prioritize workers and the environment in good faith. So what we are doing as a movement is working with organizations’ own membership base (think UCLA students, faculty and staff in the case of BYV-UCLA) to put the hard question to the purchasing decision makers: does our organization actually want to be a force for good in the world? If so, then we need to adjust our price expectations and help lift up brands who have committed to higher standards.