The Ethics of Selling T-Shirts
by Ramon Diaz
It all started with a simple question. Design and fit being equal, would your rather buy a heavier t-shirt for $15 or a softer lighter one for $17?
When I started hippieuniversity.com, I intended, to not only to build a worthwhile business, but to make a positive difference in the world. It has always been my intent to build an ethical business and to create something I can be proud of.
I posted my market research question on Facebook to see where the market stood, and instead, I opened a can of worms. My friend Ralph Cudworth asked: Are the t-shirts made of organic cotton? Are they made in the USA? He forced me to look into manufacturing practices of t-shirt producers. What I found out was confusing and disheartening.
My choice of t-shirt for my shop was Hanes Nano t-shirts. They are soft, lightweight and although not bottom priced, it is still reasonably priced. So I researched Hanes business practices. I found the following press release from the company in Reuters:
“Ranked No. 530 on the Fortune 1000 list, Hanes has approximately 59,500 employees in more than 35 countries and takes pride in its strong reputation for ethical business practices. Hanes is a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Energy Star 2014, 2013 and 2012 Sustained Excellence Award winner and 2011 and 2010 Partner of the Year award winner. The company has been ranked on Newsweek magazine’s list of Top 500 greenest U.S. companies.”
I breathed a sigh of relief. When creating a business based on ethical behavior, the worst thing I could find out is that you are selling sweatshop t-shirts. Not trusting their corporate word, I kept digging until I found workerrights.org. There I found allegations of wage theft, safety violations and illegal firings as late as 2015.
Many people answered my Facebook post saying that their decision to shop for a t-shirt (design and fit not being a factor) is based mostly on price. The t-shirt business is very competitive. It is hard enough to find customers for a $17 t-shirt. Would a $15 dollar t-shirt be more competitive? The only choice to offer a cheaper t-shirt is the Gildan brand. Once again I went looking for answers. In their website they boast about their environmentally responsible business practices. Then I kept digging a little further. The Worker’s Rights Consortium reports allegations of mass firing and, even more shameful, wage theft to Haitian workers. The end of the report notes:
“In response to the WRC’s report, Genesis’ primary buyer, Gildan Activewear, has committed to bring their Haitian supplier factories into compliance with the minimum wage. In addition, Gildan Activewear has committed to negotiate directly with worker representatives in Haiti to remedy past non-compliance and make workers whole for past wage theft.“
Both Gildan and Hanes are aware of the reputation of the industry as a whole and are trying to remedy some of their issues. Unfortunately, they have taken action only after allegations became public and threatened their corporate reputation. Public pressure is the key to keeping these corporate giants in line. According to their own code of conduct:
“Gildan is committed to the highest standards of integrity and to acting responsibly and ethically in all countries in which it operates in compliance not only with this Code of Conduct, but also in accordance with internationally accepted labour principles, including the Fair Labor Association Workplace Code of Conduct.”
Should we take them at their word? We will trust them but verify they are doing the right thing. We are going to keep a close eye on their business practices to keep them accountable.
So what’s the final verdict? Is a cheaper, heavier, t-shirt the way to go? Is a nicer, softer, lightweight and more ethical (but more expensive) t-shirt the right choice? The answer: there is a market for both, and navigating the ethics of responsible consumerism is fraught with many pitfalls. I decided that a better value t-shirt is needed to attract business to the website, so I will offer $15 Gildan t-shirts, but will also offer a very soft, well made Canvas brand t-shirt that is made in the USA.
Ralph will no longer have an excuse for not buying a t-shirt from me.