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September 10, 2001
Ben & Jerry's Co-founder Invests in "Sweat-free" Garments
    by Trevor Snorek-Yates

Following the sale of the Ben & Jerry's label to Unilever, Ben Cohen has shifted his focus from ice cream to the clothing industry as a vehicle for social change.

Following the sale of the Ben & Jerry's label to Unilever, Ben Cohen has shifted his focus from ice cream to the clothing industry as a vehicle for social change.

In a 1995 raid just outside Los Angeles, federal officers exposed a garment operation employing 72 illegal Thai immigrants working at $0.70/hour in a barbed wire-wrapped apartment complex. Southern California continues to be a focal point of the debate on U.S. workers' rights.

A U.S. Department of Labor survey shows that two-thirds of Los Angeles garment factories violate federal minimum wage laws and nearly all break health and safety standards. Cohen's venture promises to offer employees higher wages, stock options and the ability to organize unions, thereby creating a sweat-free enterprise.

The word "sweat-free" is a variable term. "It's both tough to define and to determine whether, on any given day, a particular factory fulfills the criteria," said Scott Nova, Executive Director of the Worker Rights Consortium, a non-profit organization assisting in the enforcement of manufacturing codes of conduct.

Businesses considered sweat-free might include those who pay minimum wage, comply with health and safety regulations, and take no illegal action to deter unions, as well as those committed to workers' rights, living wages and respecting collective negotiations.

Mil Niepold, Director of Policy at Verite, an international labor monitoring organization, said, "Verite does not define what constitutes a sweatshop, nor do we certify a facility as being sweat-free. Conditions in factories can change overnight so we feel that it's best to work on the basis of continuous change."

Cohen hopes are that this manufacturing facility will serve as a model for change among other clothing factories. While other textile companies such as Malden Mills, creators of Polartec, are already committed to exceedingly high standards, Cohen is the first to declare itself "sweat-free."

Franklin Roosevelt's Fair Labor Standards Act established a minimum wage, the 40-hour work week, and a minimum working age and these continue to serve as the basis for the U.S. Department of Labor's definition of a sweatshop.

With the relatively recent El Monte incident, the controversial subject has been brought back to college campuses and boardrooms across the country. Cohen's business is targeting college bookstores, a market estimated at $2.5 billion in sales annually. The Worker Rights Consortium, created by college students and administrators, is an example of the change called for by campuses nationwide. Cohen reports universities have already expressed interest in having their official college clothing be produced by this new company.

The goal to value workers' rights is only the beginning. "Follow through and transparency are required for this laudable idea to remain credible in the eyes of consumers, shareholders and investors," said Ms. Niepold. "It will require third party external monitoring of the facility and making the results of such an audit public."

"The head of any such endeavor will certainly need to work hard to make sure that all managers and supervisors understand that the commitment to a high standard of workers' rights is sincere. This commitment must be reflected in their actions," said Mr. Nova. "It will also be essential to avoid letting the standards become casualties of any belt-tightening that may be required."

In an industry marked by injustices to a marginalized workforce, the change Ben Cohen is bringing to this sector of commerce is causing a stir. With a commitment to social change and a well-known name, Cohen is aiming to top his past ice cream sales with clothing.


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