Saturday, November 13th, 2010...4:57 pm

A closer look at labor regulations with Nau Clothing

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A couple weeks ago I published my latest piece on for-benefit companies at Commerce with a Conscience, With Benefits: Nau. For it, I got to learn a lot about the labor landscape from talking with Nau‘s product and textile guru:

I get a little bit giddy every time I talk to someone like Jamie Bainbridge, Nau’s director of product and textile development. I find myself trying to gather as many smart-shopping takeaways as possible from her vast amounts of garment industry knowledge.

Interestingly enough, Jamie was surprisingly pessimistic about the current state of labor certifications, and the auditing processes that qualify them. Crazy, right? (Though, don’t worry, she did affirm the exciting things we’ve heard before about Nau’s textile developments — read more on that at CWAC.)

“The business of auditing factories has become controversial,” she told me. Now that Western consumers and corporations have become more conscientious of how their goods are made, the downside is that factory auditing has become a business unto itself, costing factories lots of money and lots of time. “A lot of Asian factories will have 50 to 100 audits per year, which takes over their lives,” she said.

Jamie shared lots of “hints” about labor practices in the garment industry, so for those of you paying attention like I am, I thought I’d share the juiciest bits.

  • “By and large, the good factories are doing everything they can. It’s important to the Western customer, so it’s important to their survival to do good.”
  • So what warrants a “good” factory? Jamie said that labor issues aren’t in direct correlation with a product’s price point — “Walmart could do it right if they tried,” she said. (!) The direct correlation for good labor practices is in regards to the brand’s general conscientiousness.

  • Nike, Columbia, GAP, Marks & Spencer — these are brands that Nau trusts for vetting the “good factories.” Nau is small enough that it simply can’t afford to audit every factory it works with on its own, so working with factories that are considered up-to-compliance by brands like these are taken as a solid affirmation. (I take that as a solid stamp of approval for my own shopping!)
  • About auditing: ”The American consumer would like to think it solves problems, but it has been shown that it doesn’t.” So what does solve labor problems? We don’t know yet (“haven’t quantified it,” Jamie said), but groups like the Outdoor Industry Association are looking at systemic problems within the industry. Their labor solutions will be incorporated into the up-and-coming Eco Index, a standard that will regulate the labeling of green garments (and that Jamie is involved with), sometime next year.
  • What else can Nau do, especially at its relatively-small size? “I can make the best choice I can make to work in the best factories I can work in. That’s the only thing I can do to move the lever,” Jamie said.
  • And check this out about the Los Angeles garment industry! “The LA manufacturing scene is getting back on its feet,” so Jamie just took a trip there to check it out. “The sad truth is that I have less control in LA than I would in Asia, with a factory I’ve worked with for years,” she said. She mentioned American Apparel and its required layoff of 1,800 undocumented workers last fall. “They were undocumented; who would they complain to (if they needed to)?” she said. “It’s never what it seems.”

Très intéressant.

Any expertise (or even just a strong opinion) on the matter from any of you?

I will keep the conversation going, and I will let you know what I learn. :)

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