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Corporate Statistics
American Apparel, LLC logo
Worker Rights Human Rights Political Influence Environmental Business Ethics

This company has Areas of Concern regarding Workers Rights and Business Ethics.

American Apparel, LLC

747 Warehouse St. Los Angeles CA USA
90021
213-488-0226
http://www.americanapparel.net

Type:

Private

La Compania Rebelde: Understanding American Apparel

by B. Dolan, Special to Knowmore.org
August 22, 2006

The CEO of American Apparel is sputtering mad, screaming into the phone at me.

"You think you're doing good... but you're... an information terrorist! I'm sorry to tell you...your hands are filthy! You fucked me! That's what you did. You fucked me and you fucked my workers!"

I try to yell over him and defend myself for a bit, but the shouting match that ensues feels sort of juvenile so I stop. Now I can only take in the show, as Dov Charney's voice cracks wildly, screaming loud enough at times to be inaudible through the receiver.

"You just... take a crap on someone's work without really knowing it... and I'm so confident of it! I'm so arrogant... you just ate the Union's crap! You rely on propaganda propagated by a corrupt union... ok... this union has shit... they've been sued... Take down the website smart man! You should be sanctioned! You are a dirty person due to your negligence!"

Five minutes in, our first interview is going great.

The aforementioned website is Knowmore.org, a corporation-watch web service I created and co-founded in 2005. Knowmore's goal is to compile and organize data about companies, while providing its readers with a Social Responsibility Profile for the brands and products they buy. The site collects tools and information consumers can use to be more critical in choosing which companies to support with their purchases, and encourages its readers to "vote with their dollar." A number of readers requested that we compile an overview of American Apparel's history and ethics. A month later the resulting profile had made its way to Dov Charney's attention.

American Apparel is the largest garment manufacturer in the United States, and as of this writing employs roughly 4,500 workers out of a single factory in downtown Los Angeles. Its growth in the past five years has been astonishing; from 2002 to 2004, the company repeatedly doubled its annual sales figures, and has opened 130 retail stores worldwide in the past three years. [1], [2]

American Apparel has garnered substantial praise, attention, and profits due to its one-time self-labeling as "Sweatshop Free." Formerly, the company's catalogue included a photographic essay of immigrant sewers and cutters at work, and nearly every company press release carried the subheading “Los Angeles Based Sweatshop Free T-Shirt And Apparel Company.” Ads, billboards and clothing tags repeated the claim, affording hipsters with a conscience the opportunity to buy a quality product from an ethical source. In 2002, Dov Charney and American Apparel sold stylish revolution to the tune of $40 million dollars. [3]

Then, in November 2003, the sweat hit the fan.

In a filing with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in November 2003, the Union of Needlework, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE) accused Dov Charney and American Apparel of obstructing union efforts to organize workers. According to UNITE, American Apparel was guilty of union-busting activities, including the interrogation of workers about their support for a union, the solicitation of workers to withdraw their union authorization cards and threatening to close the factory if a union was formed. The company was accused of printing anti-union armbands and making employees wear them, in addition to forcing employees to hold an anti-union rally in the warehouse parking lot.

September 2004 American Apparel ad, depicts CEO Dov Charney in bed with a model and reads: "Made in Downtown LA ... Sweatshop Free - Brand Free Clothes". Click to enlarge.
September 2004 American Apparel ad, depicts CEO Dov Charney in bed with a model and reads: "Made in Downtown LA ... Sweatshop Free - Brand Free Clothes". Click to enlarge.

A no fault settlement was eventually reached with the NLRB, but one year later the "sweatshop free" claim had disappeared from company press releases and ads. Anti-sweatshop activists and organizations had begun censuring the company's actions publicly and withdrawing their support, and Charney was telling the Los Angeles Business Journal “[being sweatshop-free] is a secondary appeal and I'm getting a little bored with it... I’m de-emphasizing it.” [4], [5], [6], [7], [8]

Next, a flurry of bizarre press began appearing, casting further doubt on the company's ethics and practices.

A February 2004 article in Jane Magazine described Dov Charney as engaging in oral sex with a female employee and masturbating in front of the female reporter. [9] Later that year, Dov was quoted in the McGill Daily as saying: "Feminism is extremely restrictive. You can’t call a woman a bitch, you can’t call her this, you can’t call her that. But that’s what life’s really like. Yet she can do whatever she wants. It’s out of balance and that’s why young people haven’t embraced feminism, because it’s out of balance.” Later in the same interview, Charney is depicted as ranting about "lawsuit culture," and famously stating, "Women initiate most domestic violence." [10]

"Lawsuit culture" came home for Dov Charney in 2005, with three former female employees filing sexual harassment suits against him.

In their suits, two of the women accused Charney of exposing himself to them. One woman said he invited her to masturbate with him and that he ran business meetings at his Los Angeles home wearing close to nothing. Another employee said he asked her to hire young women with whom he could have sex. All of the women filing suit described Charney using "foul language" in their presence, much of it demeaning to women. [11]

While reporting on the suits in June of 2005, BusinessWeek spoke with seven former workers who claimed they took offense with what they called a "highly sexual atmosphere" at American Apparel. They told of senior managers who pursued sexual relationships with subordinates, and rewarded their "favorites" with promotions, apartments and company cars. BusinessWeek quoted one former employee as saying, "It was a company built on lechery." [12]

2005 American Apparel Ad
2005 American Apparel Ad

In the year that followed, Charney's legal battles, infamous behavior, and inflammatory statements in the press brought renewed scrutiny to American Apparel's notoriously risque advertising. Many commentators began drawing connections between Charney's openly sexual ethos, the charges brought against him, and American Apparel ads that often seemed to resemble amateur pornography. [13], [14], [15]

After these issues were laid out in the original 2006 Knowmore profile of American Apparel, with links provided to relevant articles and company responses for each of the charges, I was contacted by Cynthia Semon, a press agent, on behalf of American Apparel. She disputed a number of the claims made in the various articles and editorial pieces, and challenged Knowmore's committment to journalistic ethics for presenting these sources.

Ms. Semon proved to be accomodating, and spoke at great lengths about the company and its practices, as did much of American Apparel's management. Dov Charney, for his part, spoke extensively with me on several occassions. He provided his personal cell phone and email address should I have any questions, and genuinely seemed to adhere to his much touted personal transparency. Even, and perhaps especially, when he was screaming at me.

"You get on a plane! You get on a plane and come down here! Talk to the workers! If you had any dignity! If you had any integrity as a journalist you would be on a plane tomorrow!"

As it turns out, I have both. What I also clearly had was a responsibility, and an opportunity. I accepted Dov Charney's invitation and challenge. The report that follows is the result of factory visits, countless hours in meetings and interviews with workers, managers, and those in and around the conflicts. What followed Charney's call was six months in pursuit of the original goal: a profile of American Apparel, and a better understanding of the divisive company's history and ethics.

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