Hot Fudge for Social Justice

Ben Cohen had a great answer as to how he came all the way from the Vermont of his former Ben & Jerry‘s ice cream empire to be standing in front of a new clothing factory in a depressed corner of downtown Los Angeles. “I came via Atlanta,” he said.

Not the most direct route, perhaps. But Atlanta is where Cohen keeps his Hot Fudge Social Venture Capital Fund, which has, to the tune of $1 million, funded the Mateo Street firm of TeamX, makers of SweatX casual wear. The name signifies that no sweatshop is involved in the manufacture of the clothes.

Not exactly a typical corporation, TeamX is a managementworkers cooperative dedicated to making a buck. “Hot Fudge isn’t a foundation,” Cohen explained at this week‘s festive grand opening. “We expect to make a profit on our investment.”

But the investment does have a higher purpose, Cohen allowed. The enterprise is trying to prove that, even in the cutthroat rag trade, worker dignity and decent job conditions have a place. TeamX, which with 20 union employees, has unusual (for this business) amenities, such as a lunchroom and spacious bathrooms. (That the women’s is much larger than the men‘s probably reflects the far larger number of women employed in the business.)

There are full health benefits, and the pay starts at $8.50 an hour -- a lot in this industry, where non-citizen immigrant workers sometimes don’t receive the legally required minimum wage. As a further touch of social justice, company policy provides that management gets a maximum wage of no more than eight times the lowest-paid worker.

How can this glossy upstart compete with L.A.‘s stifling sewing lofts and cutting shops, where some 140,000 people toil, often for wages 30 percent less than those offered by TeamX? Doubters express skepticism that social-justice mongering can trump a cheap price.

The answer, from Hot Fudge exec Pierre Ferrari, is that labor is a minor part of a garment’s cost -- around 5 percent -- so paying more won‘t greatly affect the final price.

Cohen added that an advanced production system also will hold down expenses. And to illustrate this point, TeamX’s lofty but unpretentious building -- decorated with arching braids of red, white and blue balloons -- is outfitted with rows of new sewing machines. Also on display was a large, high-tech pattern-cutting mechanism: The base is a large blue table with a spongy, porous surface, over which a machine that looks like a small screenless computer monitor hobbles nervously as it cuts cloth intoaintricate shapes. That‘s a $200,000 Gerber Technology computerized garment cutter. There aren’t too many of them around Los Angeles yet.

“It can cut five times as fast as a single [human] cutter. And it is much safer to operate,” said Gerber Technology regional sales manager Warren Hartenstine. The patterns themselves are rapidly created on computers in another part of the plant, Hartenstine said. Speed matters, because the L.A. rag trade‘s main advantage over foreign competitors is a quick turnaround.

TeamX is counting on consumer good will toward workers to help sell its wares, but not on good will alone. The SweatX clothes as well as their promotional materials look chic and well made.

Targeting socially aware youngsters, and in particular, college and university retailers, TeamX will advertise its clothes as being made by fair-paid workers employed in decent conditions -- a vivid contrast to the all-too-common state of affairs elsewhere.

Just a jog away, during the SweatX opening, a market was developing for its product. Twelve students staged a six-hour sit-in just outside the office of USC President Steven Sample, while more than 20 others demonstrated nearby.

The students demanded that USC disclose the factory locations where USC-label clothes are manufactured, and that the university also release the contract Nike has with USC to make apparel. The students also insisted that USC join the Workers Rights Consortium, an alliance that monitors and opposes sweatshop conditions globally.

Sample left his office under police escort without meeting with protesters. But other administrators did speak with them, though they spurned the demands. USC’s contract with Nike was proprietary information, said Phil Chiaramante, USC‘s associate vice president of auxiliary services: “It is not something we want to be made public.” Nor would USC join the Workers Rights Consortium -- because manufacturers were not fairly represented, he said. (UCLA is among more than 90 colleges that have joined the consortium.)

Chiaramante also defended USC’s industrial collaborator: “I think that Nike had some problems back early on, and they are very much aware of the situation now.”

The students disbanded without incident but set a May 9 “deadline” for USC to address the demands.

Former ice cream maven Ben Cohen is standing by with shopping alternatives. And, he added, “I‘m glad to be involved with a product that won’t make me fat.”

Haefele reported from the garment district, Pelisek from USC.

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