Rising Above Sweatshops

Day 3 of my blogaversary celebration brings me to a double-barrelled success story. Story #1 is the story of a significant shift in practices in the international garment industry. Story #2 is the story of a book about story #1. I’ll tell both stories very briefly, and then move onto the 3rd contest of the week.

Story #1
Workers in the international garment industry could be the poster-children (sometimes literally children) for modern business ethics. Stories about sweatshops in Haiti and China and other places have made headlines many times over the last 2 decades. Brand-name manufacturers (e.g., Nike) and retailers (e.g., the Gap) have been boycotted. Celebrities (e.g., Kathy Lee Gifford) have been publicly ridiculed for endorsing or lending their names to products that turned out to have been manufactured under delporable conditions. But it’s also quite a complicated problem: in some cases, labour practices (low pay, few safety measures) that would never be tolerated in Canada are used by developing nations as a means of attracting crucial foreign investment. Nobody reasonable thinks that garment factories in Vietnam or Thailand are going to pay Canadian wages any time soon; but neither does anybody reasonable think that “anything goes.” The hard part lies somewhere in between: setting reasonable standards and then getting far-flung and hard-to-monitor factories, often run by profit-hungry middle-men, to comply. But progress has been made, at least among industry leaders. Indeed one industry leader, Nike — once criticized for the deplorable working conditions at factories in its supply chain — now ranks highly on corporate citizenship rankings.

Now by calling this a “success story” I don’t mean to say that all is rosy in the world of the international garment industry. Far from it. But it seems that significant progress has been made over the last few years, in a domain where corporate professions of good intentions generated little but skepticism and cynicism just 10 years ago.

Story #2
A story as interesting as the changes in the garment industry over the last decade cries out to be told in rich detail. This was the task set for themselves by the authors whose work is featured in Review of Rising Above Sweatshops: Innovative Approaches to Global Labor Challenges, edited by Laura P. Hartman, Denis G. Arnold, and Richard E. Wokutch. It’s an ambitious book, one that covers a lot of ground. It’s laid out in two main sections. The first section includes six chapters by various authors exploring a range of substantive issues related to global labour practices. The second half of the book is dedicated to case studies; in particular, the authors and editors state that their goal is to provide positive case studies, ones that provide detailed descriptions of companies that have been successful responding to global labor challenges.

Melissa Whellams and I reviewed Rising in the October issue of Business Ethics Quarterly. And while we generally liked the book (we called it “a good book, and a valuable contribution to the literature on this important topic”), one of our criticisms of the book looks unfair in retrospect. The criticism was that some of the cases featured in the books are about companies — companies such as Nike and Levi Strauss — that have already been talked about a lot. We wondered, in print, whether some newer cases might be more useful. Of course, this was entirely unfair: we were reviewing in 2006 a book published in 2003 and likely submitted for publication in 2002, for starters. So the authors can hardly be blamed for attention given to those companies in the intervening 4 years. And furthermore, part of the reason that the Nike and Levi Strauss cases are so familiar to us at this point is precisely that the authors of Rising have spent the last several years presenting those case at academic conferences.
So, our apologies to the authors, and congratulations again on a very valuable contribution.
Which brings us to…

Contest #3
The third contest in my blogaversary extravaganza is this: which company should get an award for the year’s worst instance of “greenwashing?” (If you don’t know what greenwashing is, see the explanation here.)
Email me your submission. Best submission — as judged by me — wins the prize.
The prize is a hardcover copy of Rising Above Sweatshops, courtesy of the nice folks at Greenwood Publishing. The contest will stay open for 48 hours; I’ll judge entries & post the winner on Friday.
[Full disclosure: 2 of the editors of Rising Above Sweatshops (Hartman & Arnold) are friends of mine, though I knew them less well when I agreed to review their book for BEQ.]
[UPDATE: Several people have told me the contest deadline is too short. So, I’m going to keep the contest open until I have a critical mass of entries to sift through.]

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