Patriotism in my pants

The new Levi’s commercial is well done.  I mean how can you go wrong with Walt Whitman and sprinklers?  But I can’t help think that it’s a bit ironic that there isn’t a single Levi’s factory left on American soil.  The Levi’s I tracked down were Made in Cambodia.

An excerpt from “Where Am I Wearing?”

There is no such thing any more as a Levi’s factory. There hasn’t been since the 2004 closure of their last domestic plant in San Antonio, Texas. The company no longer produces jeans or any other type of clothing. They are a brand only. They design products, place orders with factories like the Roo Hsing Garment Factory, and then they market their products to you and me.

If you read much about Levi’s, you’ll come across a lot of flowery red, white, and blue language such as Karl Schoenberger’s in his book Levi’s Children: Coming to Terms with Human Rights in the Global Marketplace (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2000), “Levi’s represents raw American individualism.”

And don’t even get people started on blue jeans: A president of the denim council said jeans are “a magnificent flag that says ‘USA’ to the world at large”; Designer Charles James said, “blue denim is America’s gift to the world”; James Sullivan, author of Jeans, wrote, “Jeans are the surviving relic of the western frontier.”

America is in love with the blue jean. Jeans represent a come-as-you-are, I-don’t-give-a-damn sort of individualism that our country prides itself on. Levi’s makes jeans, and we made Levi’s into the world’s largest apparel brand.

Levi Strauss & Company has always tried to do right by their employees. When the earthquake of 1906 hit San Francisco and devastated their factory, office, and store, the company kept their employees on the payroll. When the Great Depression came and their orders plummeted, instead of laying off employees, they found other work for them to do. But globalization was unlike any force, natural or economic, that they had experienced.

The 1990s saw major retailers like JCPenney and Sears launch their own brands of jeans. Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, Lucky You, and Guess came out with high-end designer jeans. And, of course, there was Bugle Boy jeans, which my mom pretty much kept in business buying outfits for me. Then there was The Gap.

The Gap and its successful spin-offs—Banana Republic and Old Navy—sourced their clothing overseas and stole the title of the world’s largest apparel brand from Levi’s.

Levi’s, the brand of Brando, the Fonze, James Dean, and Jack Kerouac had become uncool for the first time in their history, and they scrambled to fight back. They hired “urban networkers” to infiltrate cultural groups in major cities around the world to learn how to best market to their tastes, to learn what was cool. But rediscovering cool was only half the battle. The company had more competition than ever, and that competition was taking advantage of cheaper labor in the developing world and Levi’s wasn’t.

Levi’s was one of the last major U.S. garment manufacturers to cave in to the forces of globalization. Tens of thousands of jobs manufacturing Levi’s in the United States disappeared. A company statement addressing the job cuts said, “Virtually every major apparel company has eliminated, scaled back or never owned manufacturing facilities” and that Levi’s had tried to maintain a North American manufacturing presence, but competition would not allow it. Levi’s workers at the San Antonio factory were getting paid $10 to $12 per hour before their jobs disappeared. Now Levi’s doesn’t pay garment workers. They pay factories. And those factories, such as this one in Cambodia, barely pay their workers $12 per week.

Levi’s is a company that prides itself on its strong ethics. In the nineteenth century when many jeans were made by prisoners, Levi’s advertised that their jeans were “Not Prison Made.” In the 1960s, they integrated their factories in the American South before the civil rights movement had even taken off. Whites and blacks didn’t share bathrooms and water fountains in public, but they did while working at Levi’s.

They considered doing business in South Africa, a booming market, but decided against it and waited until the end of apartheid.

In the face of globalization, Levi’s established their groundbreaking Global Sourcing Guidelines. From their web site:

In 1991, we were the first multinational company to develop a comprehensive code of conduct to ensure that individuals making our products anywhere in the world would do so in safe and healthy working conditions and be treated with dignity and respect. Our Terms of Engagement are good for the people working on our behalf and good for the long-term reputation of our brands.

Today, many companies have established similar guidelines. In 1993, Levi’s cited their Guidelines as the reason for beginning to pull out of China. China had too many human rights violations to meet the standards Levi’s had set in their Guidelines for Country Selection.

Levi’s chose human rights over business wrongs until the business itself was threatened. Five years after phasing out operations in China, the company succumbed to market pressures and softened their standards. Schoenberger explains, “The company has to survive as a viable profitable business before it can carry out its ethical mandate to the hilt.” In 1998, they were back in China because as company president Peter Jacobi stated, “You’re nowhere in Asia without being in China.” China’s human rights situation hadn’t gotten any better, but Levi’s competition had gotten that much more heated.

Schoenberger writes:

Unfortunately, a cautious and quiet Levi Strauss—succumbing with resignation to the amoral tides of globalization—leaves the international business community without a beacon of strong leadership at a time when it needs positive models of ethical policy more than ever. . . . If the flame goes out, it would be a devastating loss for the world. Because if Levi Strauss can’t do it, then maybe nobody can.

But let’s not extinguish the beacon just yet. It was Levi’s corporate office in San Francisco that told me to contact Tuomo at the ILO. It was Levi’s that arranged this factory tour for me.

Levi’s sources from over 40 countries, and I can’t say how the conditions are at all the factories they buy from, but this factory in Cambodia is what I would expect a garment factory in the United States to look like. I can’t really say if this is a result of Levi’s maintaining their standards or of the ILO maintaining its well-run Better Factories Cambodia program. The strong presence of the ILO ensures that Cambodia’s garment factories are monitored. Organizations like CARE, United Nations Development Fund For Women (UNIFEM), World Vision, and Oxfam support and educate the workers. For better or worse, there are a lot of unions in Cambodia teaching workers about their rights. USAID funded a six-part soap-opera-styled drama produced by the ILO, titled At the Factory Gates to educate workers about everything from their rights to staying healthy. It’s in Khmer. I have all six episodes with English subtitles. If a worker doesn’t have a DVD player, which they probably don’t, comic books are available. I would be surprised to learn of any other developing nation’s garment workers being supplied with comic books or DVDs.

But here’s what gets me: If Cambodia has the most regulated and well-run garment industry regarding human rights, everywhere else must be at its level or below. And while I can wear my Made in Cambodia Levi’s and be pretty positive the workers—although their lives are tough—were treated fairer than most, it’s likely that my other Levi’s, made in one of the other 40 countries Levi’s sources from, were made by workers whose lives are even tougher.

 
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