THE MOVIE: Amie Williams' case study of two clothing-for-change businesses, American Apparel and SweatX, is a compelling, tight, and even-handed effort. The two highlighted brands share a mission to offer American-made clothing that attempts to avoid sweatshop conditions. Easier said than done.
Apart from the United States' present contribution to the world garment trade--Los Angeles alone has only about 160,000 garment workers, mostly women, Latina or Asian, and mostly undocumented--countries such as Cambodia are touted by no less than Bill Clinton as models of fair practices in textile manufacturing. Ken Silverstein's January Harper's "Shopping for Sweat: the human cost of a two-dollar T-shirt" explains how some working conditions may have improved for Cambodian workers, but pay is still abysmally low and woe unto the worker who tries to talk about an independent, non-government controlled union. Conscientious consumers are mostly left choosing between varying degrees of evil.
Williams finds that no matter how hard anyone may try to clean it up, garment manufacturing is fast-paced, grueling work. Chief among the complications that she attempts to unravel is that AA founder/CEO Dov Charney openly embraces the term "sweatshop" and is rabidly, unabashedly anti-union. The self-described "best hustler of [his] generation" began selling T-shirts as a Montreal high schooler. He started AA in the '90s, opening his first retail store on the West Coast in 2003. Ben Cohen (of Ben & Jerry's ice cream fame) started the SweatX brand of socially conscious clothing in 2001 with $2.5 M in start-up funds. Naturally, Charney resents the limelight competition. "How come he didn't set up a workers' cooperative at Ben & Jerry's?!? He's bleaching his reputation!" Charney shouts at the camera.
Presumably filmed over the course of a few years, Sweat provides front-row seats to the clothiers duking it out. SweatX pays its employees a flat hourly rate, while AA uses a frantically paced piecework system. SweatX has the highest-paid workers in the industry; AA's mostly Latina factory workers are working too fast to stop to talk to a film crew. But Charney assures that they're happy. And why wouldn't they be? They have a boss willing to stand up for immigrant rights--to the point where he's made his company a target for the Bush and Obama administrations. But Williams' juxtaposition of the companies' holiday parties foreshadows what is to come.
And though she makes you wait for it, Williams eventually covers the sex issue, and Sweat becomes largely about American Apparel. Charney explains his controversial ad photos as "friends shooting friends, lovers shooting lovers." He's not concerned with marketing to a "feminist who's 55 years old. But what do you think about this ad, young woman of 22?" he asks. Hell, his landlord even lets him take photos of his girlfriend for an ad. Less time is devoted to the sexual-harassment lawsuits which Charney explains--to the degree that he claims to be able to since one of them is still pending--as "bogus."
Sweat unfortunately omits why Charney is so steadfastly against his employees unionizing. Because he would lose some modicum of control of his workforce? Probably. Because he's crazy--crazy enough to embrace the term "sweatshop" while selling his customers sweat-free clothing? Williams fails to press him for answers, but No Sweat remains a fascinating look at American consumerism and the American conscience.
THE DISC: The extras include an interview with director Williams, who wears a leisure shirtdress by American Apparel, two deleted scenes, a trailer, and some great previews. Keep an eye on Indiepix.