American Apparel Sweatshops: Anti-Sweatshop Policy Hurts Developing World


A recent PolicyMic article criticized clothing store American Apparel for an ad campaign the writer found offensive. While I found the "sexist" ad campaign to be rather harmless, I would like to criticize American Apparel for an ad that I find to be offensive, or at the very least misleading. Last month, while still at school, I was reading Philadelphia Weekly and saw this full-page ad. I was appalled at how Dov Charney, CEO of American Apparel, touted his own business practices while calling his competitors "unethical" for using sweatshops. 

While this opinion might not be popular, I ask that you hear me out. Firstly, "sweatshop" is a buzzword. Can you tell me exactly what a sweatshop is? I guarantee that you gave a unique answer. Even this anti-sweatshop website admits that "what constitutes a 'sweatshop' may be more emotional than legal." The name "sweatshop" caries with it imagery of child labor and long hours. So even before one can form an opinion on "sweatshops," one has viewed these cost-proficient factories in a negative light.

Secondly, one cannot look at this from an American perspective. In developing nations sweatshops provide an attractive alternative to other work. How do we know this? The sweatshop workers freely chose that job, so while hard to believe, the other jobs available are so undesirable that work in these factories are the best option. Many times the other employment opportunities include field labor, begging, or, as John Stossel points out, child prostitution.

Finally, sweatshops are great tools for the economies of developing nations. The United States had sweatshops in the 19th and 20th centuries; look at our economy today. Other success stories include the four so-called Asian Tigers: Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan. Because of sweatshops, it only took one generation for the national incomes of these countries to soar from about 10% to 40% of American income. Without a doubt, their growth was due to sweatshops. While this may seem like a "heartlessly conservative view" liberal economist Paul Krugman concurred in a New York Times article. He also voices his support of sweatshops as a vehicle for other nations to exit poverty as well. Krugman explained, "The overwhelming mainstream view among economists is that the growth of this kind of employment is tremendous good news for the world's poor.''

While American Apparel thinks it is doing the citizens of developing nations a service, it is actually doing quite the opposite. Swedish historian Johan Norberg pointed out the flaw in such logic during a 2003 interview with Reason magazine. Norberg said, "When uncompetitive corporations in the U.S. say that we shouldn't buy from countries like Vietnam because of its labor standards, they've got it all wrong. They're saying: 'Look, you are too poor to trade with us. And that means that we won't trade with you. We won't buy your goods until you're as rich as we are.' That's totally backwards. These countries won't get rich without being able to export goods."  

This statement most accurately answers the sweatshop question. While it may be a hard pill to swallow, sweatshops are beneficial to both the worker and the consumer. People like Dov Charney, despite their boastful proclamations, are doing nothing but taking jobs from the developing world. That, and running controversial ad campaigns.