Interview with Roian Atwood
Director of Community Relations and Organic Programs, American Apparel
Los Angeles, California
July 28, 2004

It‘s something more than just about being sweatshop free, offering benefits, offering high wages. You know what forget about it. That should be standard.
- Roian Atwood

mR: microRevolt
RA: Roian Atwood

mR: Can you say your name and what you do at American Apparel?

RA: My name is Roian Atwood and I am the Director of Community Relations and Organic Programs, starting off in more of a community relations capacity. American Apparel (AA) has this philosophy that we are only as strong as the local community that supports us. This building that we’re in here, on the corner of 7th and Alameda was built in 1929, it’s a very old building, it was vacant for many years before we moved in here. We moved in here with a conscious intention to sort of re-vitalize the downtown Los Angeles industrial community but also the communities of Boil Heights and East LA, Echo Park, some of these surrounding neighborhoods, heavily immigrant and ethnic neighborhoods that could use that sort of economic vitality and stimulation. So, originally working in the community working with different organizations and groups but also looking out on a much broader level too because AA enjoys participating on an intellectual level with academic institutions and academic communities, but also through conferences and workshops and various different capacities talking about our business model, talking about what we’re doing and how we’re doing it differently, and why it’s important as an American story but also a business story in general.

Probably the story that we’re most well for is the socially responsible story, and I can talk a little bit about that. But we’ve gotten a little bit away from talking about just the socially conscious story for very good reason.

mR: But before we talk about how you got away from that, can you just say a little bit more about what sets you apart and what your social responsibility claims are. What sets you apart from other companies in the garment industry?

RA: Right. We like to think of ourselves as sort of the huge success story because we have from our understanding the highest paid wages in this industry for these kinds of jobs. After Levis-Strauss closed down the last remaining North American plants last October, the US Dept of Labor estimated that 96% of all clothing was manufactured overseas and imported in the US. That means that AA is of the remaining 4% domestic apparel production, which is interesting too because of that 4% is going to be high end fashion. It’s a little bit easier to do domestically than it is something as simple as basic blank universal tees.

mR: Can you say more about the sweatshop issue because I know that a large amount of your consumers are excited about that and buy AA because of the anti-sweatshop claim.

RA: I think a lot of people possibly like it as an after thought. People ask us, how much feedback does AA get: “I’m buying your product because its’ sweatshop free”. It’s a little difficult to gauge sometimes because we don’t always see the end user, we’re seeing the end user a little more in the retail environment obviously, but sense we’re selling through wholesalers and silk screeners and they’re using our product and being the end user, but I did ask Pat Honda who is our Customer Service representative and she once told me she would estimate about 10% of our customers gave us that feedback, that they appreciate what we’re trying to do. I mean I get it all the time, on the phone, talk to people, emails, I mean we get testimonials, “we love your company, we love what you’re trying to do” but you know even if we get 100 emails in a month we have a database of 50,000 customers. We work with 50,000 people so 100 emails in a sea of 50,000 people doesn’t equate to a whole lot. We like to label our market as “trend conscious young adults”. Trend conscious because they might be concerned about the sweatshop issue but they also might be looking for more fashionable clothing, and they like hot clothing and isn’t it nice that it’s sweatshop free. Or, it’s sweatshop free and I’m buying with my ethics, isn’t it nice that it’s a little stylistic, so it kind of falls on this large group of parameters. But, when we initially started, we were not using the term “sweatshop free” we were using the term “passion, innovation, style and ethics,” that was like our subtitle. And then at one point we switched to “sweatshop free” and we actually had that trademarked for a while.

mR: For a while? It isn’t any longer?

RA: It’s no longer trademarked.

mR: Why?

RA: We were definitely going for the social message for a long time, for a good year, a year and a half solid.

mR: 1999?

RA: A little bit later I would say 2001, maybe 2002. When we first started American Apparel wasn’t paying the wages we are now. When AA first started we were operating in Mexico but there’s this evolution that occurred. You know, Dov was actively reading Adbusters magazine, having conversations with people about the sweatshop issue, and when he went to Mexico and visited the homes of workers that were employed by the contractor for the facility that Dov was working with, he was appalled. I mean just very simply it doesn’t take much to say, this is appalling. I mean I think if you go bare witness to the actual events that are happening, any person, within reason, you know I’m sure there is some different groups, would say no, this doesn’t make sense, somehow this doesn’t make sense. So he was working with a contractor that would hopefully make changes, the contractor would say “Oh yes, yes, yes”, Dov would go and come back – it wasn’t working out, so that’s when Dov realized the only way to he could truly create what we called “sweatshop free” was by overseeing it first thing, bringing it to Los Angeles and beating out the rest of the competition with higher efficiency times. Although I’m not sure if he even knew that then, that high efficiency times was going to be one of the best ways that we could compete with off shore competitors.

So he brought it here to start AA, people were making just minimum wage to start. As the company grew, as we were a little more profitable, as we sort of became more solid we had a bigger client base that wage was constantly increasing. The benefits that we then offered just were slowly growing and growing and growing, so the company that was offering no benefits, it was paying minimum wage, became the highest paid sewing operators and has one of the best benefit packages in the apparel industry today. Paid time off, full health care benefit, we pay about 70% of the cost of health insurance, dental, lunch, we can go strait through it talking about benefits.

We got a little bit away from "sweatshop free (TM)" because we didn’t want to limit ourselves to just a niche market. And when you talk to Manou you might actually ask him that question about SweatX, “Do you feel that SweatX was tailoring just to a niche market?” With a label title of “American Apparel” or a company name “American Apparel”, it’s pretty generic, you don’t get more generic than “American Apparel”, which is good and you know it’s not the most exciting name either. But what it does is it really allows for a large variety of people. When you label yourself as “SweatX” you might question that. It seems like immediately, at least in human dynamics, polarization happens very easily when you offend someone or you challenge someone’s views, vantage points or belief structure. “SweatX” and then it’s like, well I’m not buying from you, what are you saying about all my other clothes?” You know what I mean? There’s something about the psychology maybe of positioning yourself a little too strongly. But American Apparel, well, “made in downtown LA, sweatshop free” was our byline; it was the second line of American Apparel. Was it the forefront of our message? Yah, it was the forefront of our message a lot, but I think what we decided was that in order to grow and move forward to the next level, it was something more, it‘s something more than just about being sweatshop free, offering benefits, offering high wages. You know what forget about it. That should be standard. We’re not doing anything exceptional here, no, this should be an industry standard. Sweatshop free should be in every apparel company across the world, that’s basic. What we need to talk about now, our next step is business efficiency, and how can businesses operate in the most efficient way, not only for profitability’s prospective, but for environment, for the benefit of humanity. And maybe, maybe manufacturing goods way over here, transporting them way over here is just an inefficient model.