Human Thread tells Macy's, Kohl's: Put fair trade on the racks

by Brian Roewe

NCR environment correspondent

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Bag by bag, the cards came piling in, a line of postal workers carrying the mail sacks two at a time, depositing the thousands of letters onto the desk.

The penultimate scene from the film "Miracle on 34th Street" provided proof there was, indeed, a Santa Claus. Ahead of this year's Christmas shopping season, advocates for clothing workers hope a similar picture plays out in real life as proof the buying public is ready for a fair trade option for their closets.

The Human Thread, a Catholic advocacy group for garment workers, launched a national postcard campaign last month that asks Macy's and Kohl's to add a fair trade clothing item to their department store racks and shelves. The request is intentionally vague, preferring to allow the stores to decide what department -- men, women, children -- to target, and what article of clothing to add.

"When we visit a grocery store, we can purchase organic and fair trade items. When we visit the auto dealer, we can buy a hybrid. When we visit Macy's, we want the option to buy clothing that is fair trade and sustainable," the postcard reads to Terry Lundgren, chairman and CEO of Macy's, Inc. The same message appears on the card addressed to Kevin Mansell, Kohl's chairman, CEO and president.

Rather than rebuke the companies -- two among many in the $250 billion U.S. fashion market that offers few fair trade options and none on a mass scale -- the cards instead reassure each retailer that adding fair trade clothing builds on existing commitments to corporate responsibility and sustainable practices.

"We want better choices in our clothing," the cards read, promising if one of the stores leads, "we will buy."

Postcard from The Human Thread

Trend of global indifference

As of early October, The Human Thread has distributed more than 15,000 postcards to be mailed to each store. Its goal is for cards to arrive at each company from all 50 states, Washington D.C., Puerto Rico and Guam. Those interested in joining the campaign can have postcards shipped to them or can download them at the Human Thread website, which has seen a surge in traffic since the campaign went live Sept. 10. It runs through Nov. 25, aka "Black Friday," historically America's busiest shopping day.

"Simply put, the campaign is exceeding our expectations," said Christopher Cox, the campaign manager.

Capuchin Fr. Mike Crosby, founder of The Human Thread, told NCR the campaign has a threefold purpose: raise awareness among Catholics -- and all consumers -- of the connection between the clothing they wear daily and the exploited labor that produced it; create solidarity among them and the workers; and deliver action that improves their standard of living.

"If you really look at it, there's probably not a piece of [clothing] that you are wearing at this moment, or anyone, that is not coming from a sweatshop. We live and breathe that reality of exploited labor," he said.

Crosby and The Human Thread place the campaign in the context of the globalization of indifference that Pope Francis has repeatedly spoken against throughout his papacy. The priest, a four-plus decades vet of corporate responsibility advocacy, said the postcards represent a concrete effort "to put teeth" on the pope's call for a change of heart away from compassionless consumerism.

Consumers themselves, though, offer the best channel for change, Crosby said, with past public movements, for example apartheid in South Africa, yielding greater success than strictly shareholder intervention.

To this point, the postcard campaign has ridden on word of mouth and the organization's network and connections.

Affiliates of The Human Thread include the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Coalition of Catholic Organizations Against Human Trafficking, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the Conference of Major Superiors of Men, Franciscan Action Network, Society of St. Vincent de Paul and the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility.

Some are already active in the mailing.

One sister in Philadelphia ordered 1,000 cards, and the Marianist Province of North America has pledged to spread word among its communities, colleges, parishes and retreat centers. LCWR plans to join the campaign more earnestly in mid-October.

'Reality of exploited labor'

The timing of the campaign -- beginning shortly after Labor Day and running through Black Friday -- was meant to connect the struggle for workers' rights in this country with today's consumer culture that often sees goods produced by people elsewhere in the world lacking their own rights.

Often, that means wages unable to support basic life needs.

In Bangladesh, the world's second-largest apparel exporter employing more than 4 million people (80 percent women), workers earn $68 a month -- a 77-percent increase since 2013, but still well below the minimum $100 per month labor leaders argue is needed to cover basic necessities; some have pushed for a living wage as high as $332 per month.

Beyond pay, the fashion industry is among the leading industries targeted for human trafficking, accounting for 20 percent of water pollution worldwide, and is the second-largest polluter behind oil, accounting for 10 percent of global carbon emissions.

More: "Bangladesh counts the human cost of the garment industry" (April 20, 2016)

When the eight-story Rana Plaza garment factory collapsed in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on April 24, 2013, killing 1,136 people and injuring 2,000 more, Francis offered prayers and condolences for the families who lost loved ones, but also seized the moment to decry the working conditions inside it and other similar factories.

"Living on 38 euros ($50) a month -- that was the pay of these people who died. That is called slave labor," he said in May 2013.

"Slave labor," he continued, according to L'Osservatore Romano, exploits "the most beautiful gift which God gave man: the ability to create, to work, to discover our dignity. How many of our brothers and sisters in the world are in this situation at the hands of these economic, social and political attitudes!"

From the tragedy at Rana Plaza emerged The Human Thread.

"Our particular birth as an organization is keenly focused around the discussion of wages and sustainable practices," Cox said.

That means in part taking a deeper look at the clothes we buy and the conditions that create them. Typically, fashion decisions are made by cost and how they make us look, he said.

"But we'd like to propose that in fact there's an ethical content to the word 'good' and 'good buy,'" Cox said, later pointing to a line from Pope Benedict XVI's 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate, that "Purchasing is always a moral -- and not simply economic -- act."

"A good buy also means that it has to take care for creation, it needs to pay a just wage for the workers who made it, that it's not enough to say it makes me look thin and it's cheap," he said.

Inventory space requires buy-in

The decision to target Macy's and Kohl's with the campaign was not meant to single the two retailers out for their practices -- "all [apparel] companies are involved in this type of exploitive labor," Crosby said -- but more a reflection of their prior advances in areas of safety and sustainability. At the same time, The Human Thread sought to leverage existing relationships and avoid stores typically serving customers at lower-income levels.

Macy's, when asked about the postcard campaign, pointed to its Vendor & Supplier Code of Conduct, which since 1995 seeks to uphold fair and safe labor standards throughout its supply chain. The code prohibits forced labor, slavery, child labor and human trafficking by its vendors, and states employees should be paid at least the minimum wage required by law or the prevailing industry wage. Since 2012, Macy's has ended 77 contracts with noncompliant factories.

Neither Macy's nor Kohl's, which did not respond to comment requests for this story, stated whether they had begun receiving the postcards.

Both U.S. retailers are members of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition -- founded by Wal-Mart and Patagonia for the industry to collectively address labor and environmental challenges -- and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, which formed after the Rana Plaza collapse.

Twice-annual dialogue between Kohl's and the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, of which Crosby is a longtime member, have led to improvements on safety issues. But when conversations shift to wages, they end abruptly, he said, as it did in August when The Human Thread informed the Wisconsin-based company about the upcoming postcard campaign. Crosby said they were met with anger, with a rep questioning not just their rationale but also their faith.

Cox said he prefers the stores be angry with them, rather than "just yawn at this campaign."

But both agreed that for fair trade to gain substantial inventory space it will require buy-in from one of the big boxes.

Unlike the agriculture and auto industries -- where consumer interest in recent years has driven a rise in organic and sustainable food, and electric and hybrid vehicles -- fair trade has yet to make its mark in fashion. As it stands, no fair trade apparel company exists that's capable of developing a large-scale line. Alta Gracia Apparel, based in the Dominican Republic, is one of the larger fair trade brands and is sold primarily through college campus bookstores, including numerous Catholic universities.

"In order to get something of the scale that we're talking about with Kohl's and or Macy's, you'd almost have to have them be involved in creating some entity that would do that," Crosby said.

Enter the postcards.

Like letters to Santa, The Human Thread envisions a mountain of cards piling up at the two retailers' corporate headquarters, at capacities even bottom-line-focused businessmen can't ignore. But the mailing is only part of it, the pledge to buy -- and to likely pay more -- has to come with it.

"If they say yes, we have to mobilize our people that they put up for what they ask. Because it will be costing more money," Crosby said.

Seeing fair trade apparel appear in Kohl's or Macy's stores would be a clear success, Cox said. So too, but at a lower level, would raising awareness among consumers or expanding corporate dialogue about the moral dimension of shopping.

Crosby has hope the campaign will bear fruit for fair trade apparel, partly due to successes ICCR has had as a member of broad coalitions that targeted changes in the tobacco industry and sought increased wages in Wal-Mart's stores, though not at assembly sites.

For Cox, he believes that one store making a move to fair trade could trigger a chain reaction among competitors, similar to those in other markets, like the auto industry, where a rise in consumer consciousness has led to new product lines.

"Hummer even had a hybrid," he said.

[Brian Roewe is an NCR staff writer. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @BrianRoewe.]      

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