BOSTON -- This story begins with a pair of tennis shorts. Generic white. Cotton knit. Deep pockets. No teeny-weeny polo players or alligators or famous players' endorsements.
On the outside they bear a price tag: $24.95. On the inside they have a label boasting their and my country of origin: the USA. They have another label recording their and my size: Never mind. And of course, a third label telling how to clean them: Wash in cold water, tumble-dry low.
I have come here to adopt these tennis shorts as my very own. So I add them to a pile already containing two pairs of socks born in China. But now standing at the checkout counter, I have begun wondering what exactly the array of labels and tags aren't telling me about their background.
Do I know where these shorts began life? Do I know who made the socks and for what wage and in what working conditions? Did they get to this sports shop from a sweatshop?
I do not usually carry on conversations with my clothing. But after a year with the spotlight on sweatshops in America and child labor abroad, I am not the only consumer developing the gift of garment gab.
Monday, activists at a Washington shop rallied against Nike, insisting that it monitor conditions of Indonesian workers.
That afternoon, a humbled Kathie Lee Gifford, whose Wal-Mart clothes were made by children in Honduras and sweatshop workers in Manhattan, spoke to a congressional hearing on child labor.
The secretary names names
Tuesday, the peripatetic secretary of labor, Robert Reich, a man who has been raiding sweatshops and naming names of retailers who knew better, corralled a fashion-industry forum to wrestle over these issues.
Consumers are slowly widening their focus from what's good for the buyer to what's good for the worker. The motto, Let the Buyer Beware is changing to Let the Buyer Be Aware. But it isn't always easy.
In America, everything from cigarettes to a child's car seat carries a safety warning. The cereal box is positively garrulous about nutrition. The laundry-detergent bottle carries an infomercial on its chemical makeup. The paper towels come with a certificate of recycled birth. The entire supermarket is an invitation to comparison-shop for price and ingredients.
But my tennis shorts remain mum about working conditions. The most informed consumers can't know if the pajamas their children are sleeping in were made by sleepless children or if the balls they are playing with were made by kids who work instead of play.
Now at this checkout counter I have begun to wonder. If we have a safety label, a nutrition label, an eco-label, why not a labor label? If we have a tag telling us what's good for our private health, why not a tag telling us something about society's health? Why not a label to rank the wages, ages and working conditions of the people making what we buy?
This notion of a labor label is not as far-fetched as it seems. In Asia there is a Rugmark attached by independent monitors to guarantee European buyers that their goods have not been made by children.
California Rep. George Miller has been promoting a similar voluntary "No Sweat" label for child-labor-free products. And Tuesday in Washington, Mr. Reich's fashion forum discussed the feasibility and criteria of a label that would proclaim No Sweatshop.
In the world, more than 70 million children under 12 work full-time. In our country the Department of Labor has found one-third of the cutting and sewing shops to be hazards to the health and safety of workers.
We are told that we live in the new world economy. That companies chase wages down to the lowest, even youngest, laborer. That they do it to keep prices low and customers happy. At the same time, companies spend vast sums of money on their good name and image. They spend it on Olympic torches and ad campaigns. They do it to keep sales high and customers happy.
But what if we could compare labor practices as well as prices? What if we make a conscious reconnection between what we wear and the people who made it? One study suggests that 70 percent of us might boycott those that use sweatshops. It also suggests we might even pay more to those who pay more.
"The only way it will change," says Mr. Reich, "is if consumers ask questions." As the uneasy consumer of one pair of tennis shorts and two pairs of socks of dubious origin, let me start with an easy question. How about labels for labor? No sweat.
Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.
Pub Date: 7/19/96