Pushing for a Sweatfree Future

An Interview with Ian Robinson of the Sweatfree Purchasing Consortium

Ian Robinson, Ph.D., President of the Sweatfree Purchasing Consortium, sat down with Labor 411’s Sahid Fawaz for an interview on the organization’s work and mission.

SF: Can you provide us with some background on the Sweatfree Purchasing Consortium?  

IR: The Sweatfree Purchasing Consortium (SPC) was formed in 2010 by the anti-sweatshop organization Sweatfree Communities (whose activists had worked to pass sweatfree ordinances in a number of cities and states) and representatives of the city and state governments that adopted the new policy.  Today, SPC has 7 affiliates, five of them on the West Coast: Los Angeles, San Francisco, Berkeley, Portland, Seattle, Austin (TX) and Madison (WI).    

SPC was modeled on the Worker Rights Consortium or WRC, which was formed a decade earlier by university student activists organized nationally as United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) and representatives of the approximately 150 universities the activists had pushed to create anti-sweatshop codes of conduct that would apply to contracts signed with brands like Nike giving them the right to use the university’s logo on their products.  In both cases, the idea was that the organizations that had been persuaded to adopt new policies aimed at using their power to help fight sweatshops – local and state governments in the case of Sweatfree Communities and universities in the case of USAS – would need help to effectively monitor and enforce their new policy.   The WRC and the SPC were created to provide that help.  

From its formation, the SPC has tried to provide four basic types of support to its affiliates.   First, it developed model language for sweatfree ordinances, Requests for Proposals (RFPs), and supplier contracts.  Second, it created a database, called LinkUp!, which aimed to collect in one accessible place detailed information on every factory that was producing apparel purchased by SPC affiliates – a prerequisite for factory visits to assess compliance.  Third, SPC helped the City of Madison to develop contracts that it was easy for other cities to “piggyback” on, and encouraged affiliates to consider doing this.   Finally, through Board meetings every two to three months and annual membership meetings, SPC regularly brought affiliates together to discuss the significance of new developments in the industry (e.g., the Rana Plaza catastrophe and the resulting Bangladesh Accord), and discuss implementation challenges and possible responses. 

SF: What is meant by “sweatfree” in the eyes of the Sweatfree Purchasing Consortium? 

IR: The sweatfree ordinances adopted by SPC affiliates in the years between, say, 2000 and 2010, tended to be framed as statements of an ideal.  They provided a comprehensive list of conditions that an apparel industry free of worker exploitation would meet.  For example, factories must pay a living wage, respect workers’ rights to organize into unions, employ no children, and not engage in discrimination in hiring, pay or promotion based on gender, race or other criteria irrelevant to the nature and quality of the work performed.   Those ordinances remain in place and we think of them as statements of the ideal toward which we seek to move the industry. 

That said, SPC and our affiliates have had to face the practical problem that there are very, very few factories in the global supply chain – even the small number that remain in the United States – that meet all (or even most) of the requirements set out in our ordinances.  Moreover, the big retailers (e.g., Walmart) and brands (e.g., Nike) that shape how global apparel supply chains work are not, despite the best efforts of the anti-sweatshop movement, committed to moving the factories that they contract with toward the sweatfree ideal.  That goal conflicts with profit maximizing, the imperative that led them to set up the current system in the first place.  While they want to avoid bad publicity that might damage their brand, they have not changed their core commitment.  Without these key actors pushing to change dynamics within the industry, it is very difficult for factor ies that do recognize unions, pay higher wages negotiated in a collective agreement, and so on, to survive.

Given this reality, SPC has had to recognize that our immediate goal cannot be to help our affiliates source their apparel needs from factories that already meet all of our sweatfree conditions.  Rather, our goal must be to identify factories that are performing better than the rest when measured against the sweatfree ideal, and channel as much of our affiliates’ purchases as possible to these factories, while also keeping up the pressure on them to keep moving toward the ideal.   The model sweatfree ordinance that we promote on our SPC website, developed with the help of a team from the Harrison Institute for Public Law and the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor, both at Georgetown University, reflects this understanding of our challenge.   But we also need to develop an effective way of identifying, supporting and improving the better factories that are out there, and encouraging more to embrace a “high road” competitive strategy, premised on producing for ethical consumers willing to pay more for sweatfree products.  

SF: Are there any examples of success where organizations have moved their purchasing practices towards a more sweatfree model? 

IR: All of our affiliates have altered their purchasing practices in line with their sweatfree ordinances.  But all have run up against the practical challenges outlined in response to the previous question.  It’s not enough to set up a new process for vetting contracts if none of the suppliers who bid for your contracts can honestly guarantee that the factories they contract with to produce what you need meet our sweatfree criteria.  We have to find a way to change the dynamics of the industry with which we engage as collective consumers, so that some of those who submit bids for our contracts are clearly superior, even though not perfect, when measured against our sweatfree ideal.   But how do we do that?   For a long time, we lacked a good answer to this question.  

SF: What positive trends, if any, are you seeing in the sweatfree purchasing movement? 

IR: We’re still not sure, to be frank, that we have a good answer to the question we posed at the end of our responses to Q3, but in the last year we have developed a possible answer that we think has a lot of promise.  As we’ve explained it to others who share our values – including the folks who lead the organizations behind the Buy Your Values campaign at UCLA – we find that they, too, are excited by the potential offered by this response.  The short name for this answer is the Designated Factory List or DFL.   

The basic idea of the DFL is that SPC, working with anti-sweatshop allies, will develop a set of criteria, probably organized into three tiers, that will allow us to (1) distinguish better performing factories interested in improving from sweatshop operations, and (2) incentivize factories that meet the minimum criteria for inclusion to move up to a higher tier on the DFL. Organizations that are part of Buy Your Values at UCLA, such as Ethix Merch and the Catholic Ethical Purchasing Alliance (CEPA), as well as the Garment Workers Center in LA, are among the allies we are working closely with to develop the DFL criteria.  Once we have agreement on those, we will jointly apply for foundation grants to support testing the DFL concept.  

We hope to launch that test in Los Angeles.  LA has more apparel employees than any other US city, and equally important, its garment industry is subject to new state labor standards with the implementation of SB 62 in January 2023.  Particularly promising, the Garment Workers Center pulled together over 150 garment sector employers in support of SB 62, which (among other things) ended “piece rates” – paying workers a cent per collar, for example, rather than an hourly wage.  Piece rates often result in sub-minimum wage pay rates – illegal but challenging to catch and enforce, since every worker is being paid a different rate according to how fast they can work.  The fact that so many employers were willing to get behind a legislative initiative that is likely to raise their labor costs in LA suggests that they recognize the desirability of moving beyond the sweatshop model’s commitment to keeping wages and other labor costs (e.g., health and safety) to a minimum.  This makes this subset of LA apparel manufacturers promising potential candidates for making the additional changes to past practice necessary to meet the DFL’s entry-level criteria.  

For an excellent overview of the evolution of the anti-sweatshop movement that includes a lot more detail on the historical points made above, see Matthew S. Williams, Strategizing Against Sweatshops: The Global Economy, Student Activism, and Worker Empowerment (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2020).