Progressive Garment Factory, or Charity?
What’s the difference between a progressive factory and a charity?
Here’s the story, by Steven Greenhouse, for the NYT: A Factory Defies Stereotypes, but Can It Thrive?
…Ms. Castillo had long dreamed of a bigger, sturdier house, but three months ago something happened that finally made it possible: she landed a job at one of the world’s most unusual garment factories. Industry experts say it is a pioneer in the developing world because it pays a “living wage” — in this case, three times the average pay of the country’s apparel workers — and allows workers to join a union without a fight.
“We never had the opportunity to make wages like this before,” says Ms. Castillo, a soft-spoken woman who earns $500 a month. “I feel blessed…”
There’s lots that’s interesting, here, but what most struck me was the similarity between the factory described (which produces apparel under the label “Alta Gracia”) and the controversial (Product) RED campaign. As you may already know, (Product) RED is a project that attempts to leverage consumerism into charity, by donating a small portion of profits from certain consumer goods — RED-branded iPods, for example — to the Global Fund (to fight AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria in needy countries). I wrote about RED here and here.
See the similarity? Red asked consumers to pay a premium so that money could be donated to the Global Fund. Alta Gracia asks consumers to pay a premium so that the money can be donated to the company’s workers. In both cases, there’s an attempt to advance a worthy cause (disease prevention on one hand, poverty alleviation on the other) by appealing to affluent consumers via value-laden branding.
Two questions occur to me.
1) Will Alta Gracia be subject to the same kinds of criticisms that (Product) Red has been subjet to? If not, why not?
2) It seems to me that the choice of workers as beneficiaries of the Alta Gracia scheme is but one option. Who are other potential beneficiaries of schemes like this? If RED helps out by donating profits directly to third parties (i.e., via the Global Fund) and if Alta Gracia helps out by donating higher wages to its workers, are there other parallel mechanisms that would work? Here’s an example. What if the company that owns Alta Gracia (Knights Apparel) were publicly-traded (instead of privately-held). And what if it gave shares to poor families, so that they could receive dividends when the company makes a profit? Would that be ethically the same thing? Would people who generally think profit-seeking is evil suddenly think profits are a good thing?