REI Members Rise Up!

Not being a fellow member, you may well ask why I’m sticking my nose in your business.  Well, from my perspective, you’ve been mucking about in my “international labor rights” territory for years – specifically, by joining into the thoroughly discredited corporate self-regulation enterprise that involves “codes of conduct” for apparel supplier factories and “monitoring” by social-audit teams.  Your legal department and leadership will no doubt tell you that REI’s efforts in this area places your enterprise among the best five percent of garment-sellers (indeed, it is only a small percent of the industry that has any kind of oversight).

This is the line trotted out by Patagonia’s former ethical-production guy, Kevin Sweeney; twelve years ago he smugly asserted that these “better” companies could “work up to a living wage” for workers.  So, what’s happened since 1998?  Can you imagine consumers’ reaction to an expensive Patagonia t-shirt with a hang-tag reading: “Wow.  We’re so sorry!  We thought that we could promise you that workers making this shirt were being paid at least a subsistence wage, but it has proved to be really difficult to get our suppliers to agree.  You can go to the Fair Labor Association web-site and read that we are not really to blame…” (why-no-one-is-to-blame-for-below-subsistence-wages).

This may seem like a cheeky way to get my job application read, but I’m telling you in all sincerity that there are things that your co-op can do that are game-changing; I’m asking your help to get me a hearing (job posting).  Look at some of the things I was telling Timberland when they invited interested parties to post suggestions and comments on the company’s labor practices:

This is basically what I was telling Timberland in the latter part of 2009 (there are things that you can do to raise unconscionably-low wages… Bangladeshi workers are in desperate need of these tactics right now)…Timberland’s Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) folks did not want to seriously address this urgent wage issue… I even met with them which is not something that I usually do because I believe that CSR is 90% cover-up and 10% amelioration… Unfortunately, many erstwhile anti-sweat campaigners got sucked into “CSR” dialogues with apparel &
toy companies (back when it mattered most) — the dead-enders like me were thereby marginalized (what Paul Hawken told me about this phenomenon: “It’s almost biological” the way the mushy middle of do-gooders and their foundation funders move in as responsible dialogue partners after the no-nonsense campaigners have scared the suits).  Pls see how progressive commentators – ostensibly rooting for anti-sweat activists – missed this story as it was unfolding.

Read more here, including:

Searching through the vast output of CSR initiatives, proposals and commentary, two things jump out: denigration of the idea of “union as solution” and a quite-small collection of promising ideas. Foremost among the latter is the suggestion by City University of NY business professor, Prakash Sethi that multinationals and their contractors need to make “restitution for years and years of expropriation of wages of workers who are at the bottom of the food chain and are least able to defend themselves.” This simple idea could usher in a paradigm-shifting chain reaction. The big buyers would be moved beyond accepting blame to accepting responsibility – including financial liability – and courageous workers who stood up to abusive bosses would (better late than never) win cash-in-hand payments for tens of thousands of those cheated workers. Most importantly, perhaps, would be the resultant pressure on recalcitrant “host” governments that failed to protect workers in the first place.

There was a time not so long ago that I trouble maintaining the conviction that meaningful change was really possible in this sector.  Several very recent student-driven victories have me really juiced, however.  Russell Athletic  caved after students got 110 schools to cancel orders; Knights Apparel (biggest seller to college bookstores) is now paying 3.4 times the minimum wage in the Dominican Republic factory “Alta Gracia”; the latest – and potentially greatest, due to implications – forcing Nike to pay a couple of million dollars because workers in two Honduras factories were cheated by Nike’s suppliers.

Believe me, there were fifteen very lean years since our laser-like focus on Nike’s operations in Indonesia helped us get that miserable minimum wage tripled (for all workers there… not just shoe and apparel factories producing for Nike).

Please help me to get REI off the CSR scamming and into the forefront of worker rights-advancement.  Forward this to all co-op members you know and please do not hesitate to get back to me with support and suggestions; I’m sending off my job application today!

JEFFREY BALLINGER researches global worker rights issues. He can be reached at: