UNLISTED RETAILERS SCORE LABOR’S LIST
Byline: Joanna Ramey
WASHINGTON — Retail industry officials representing many of the nation’s largest stores labeled as subjective and ineffective the anti-sweatshop Trendsetter List released Tuesday by the Labor Department.
As reported, the list contains 31 names of stores and manufacturers cited by the agency for their efforts in combating the problem. The complete listing appeared in WWD Tuesday.
What Labor Secretary Robert Reich Tuesday called a “celebration” of corporate efforts seems only to have driven the wedge deeper between big stores and agency officials over how best to insure domestic sewing shops follow Labor laws.
Reich, as scheduled, unveiled the list at a news conference at a suburban Washington shopping mall, where he was surrounded by two dozen fashion students wearing “No Sweatshop” sweatshirts and flanked by two models, Kristen Jensen and Beverly Johnson, who have volunteered to be the agency’s anti-sweatshop ambassadors to the industry.
More than one third of the list is comprised of The Limited’s 14 divisions. Major manufacturers on the list included Levi Strauss and Co., Liz Claiborne and Guess. The only other big retail names are Nordstrom and Carson Pirie Scott Stores. Missing are the nation’s largest stores, such as J.C. Penney Co., Sears, Roebuck & Co., Wal-Mart Stores, Kmart Corp. and any of the units of May Department Stores Co. or Federated Department Stores.
“The list is a real disservice to hundreds of thousands of other retailers who are doing business every day in a highly ethical manner,” said National Retail Federation president Tracy Mullin. “This is a PR stunt. I’ll be surprised if it accomplishes whatever its goal might be.”
“I don’t think we know what the impact with consumers will be,” she added, though. “A lot will depend on the media and how it’s played. My guess is, with a list as small as this, it won’t have much impact.”
Mullin said NRF’s own good guy list, now containing about 200 of its members, is a more accurate reflection of retail’s commitment to the sweatshop issue. The list sets out requirements vendors and private label manufacturers must meet to do business with the stores, reflecting NRF’s view that manufacturers are the ones responsible for keeping tabs on contractors.
In his remarks, Reich praised the signatories to the NRF’s list for taking an “important first step.” But what’s still missing, according to Reich, is a pledge by these stores to see that domestic contractors are monitored for adherence to wage and other Labor laws, a condition retailers have consistently resisted.
“Our trendsetters take the phrase ‘no sweat’ seriously,” Reich said, by monitoring contractors “and quickly correcting any abuses that come to light.”
Mullin said there is no significance to the fact that three of NRF’s members and signatories to its list — Nordstrom, The Limited and Carson Pirie Scott — also made it onto Labor’s tally. All have random monitoring of private label manufacturers.
A spokeswoman for Federated said that if random private label inspection put these stores on the list, then Federated stores like Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s should also be Trendsetters.
“To the extent we produce private label in the United States, we conduct random inspections,” the spokeswoman said, calling the Trendsetter list “silly.” “There is not one iota of difference between what we do and what Nordstrom does,” the spokeswoman said. “We are on the list we want to be on,” she added, referring to NRF’s statement of sourcing principles.
Said a J.C. Penney spokesman of its failure to make Reich’s list: “We’re mystified by this new idea of what it takes to be a Trendsetter. J.C. Penney has been a trendsetter throughout its 93-year history, not only in its ethics and obedience to the law but in its demands that our suppliers do so as well.”
Despite such protestations, Reich said the agency will remain tireless in its anti-sweatshop pursuit and anticipates adding more Trendsetter names. He also said agency inspectors will continue to publicize invoices found during sweatshop raids, a strategy that has proven effective in getting retailers’ attention.
As for The Limited, the Trendsetter List’s centerpiece, a spokesman said the company didn’t undertake new policies to be picked and sees no competitive advantage in getting listed.
“We appreciate the recognition, but our policies existed before the list,” he said, adding, “It’s clear we are supporting [Labor] and the National Retail Federation.”
Morrison Cain, vice president of legal and public affairs, International Mass Retail Association, said he was pleased Reich isn’t using this list as a customer shopping guide. “I think the secretary explained very clearly this is their superhero’s list and it’s not a where-to-shop guide,” Cain said. “As long as this list is not misused or misrepresented, I don’t think it will have a significant impact.”
For its part, the American Apparel Manufacturers Association, which submitted its entire roster of 325 manufacturer members for the list, continues to pledge support for Reich’s efforts, despite having few members named. Larry Martin, AAMA president, said that while the association supports Reich’s efforts, Labor’s tally will never be comprehensive. “We would rather they didn’t do them,” Martin said.