As its name implies, American Apparel has long marketed itself as a home-grown source of clothing, in contrast to brands that rely on workers in poor countries to make their wares. In the wake of the deadly collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh last month, the company’s famously blunt chief executive is dialing up the rhetoric more than ever, accusing his competitors of the worst forms of exploitation.
"I think man has evolved and we're moving away from slavery," American Apparel CEO Dov Charney told The Huffington Post this week. "This situation of manufacturing clothing and paying wages that won't even buy you an iPhone after a year is not going to work. Start making clothing in a human way."
Charney has been loudly touting his brand's devotion to ethical, American manufacturing since the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory building in an industrial suburb of Dhaka, Bangladesh, took the lives of more than 1,000 people. American Apparel released an ad to remind consumers that the brand is "sweatshop free," along with a letter from Charney admonishing his counterparts in the apparel industry for unflinchingly chasing cheap labor around the world.
Although it manufactures all its garments domestically, American Apparel's reputation is far from spotless. Workers at the American Apparel factory in Los Angeles make an average of $12 an hour, according to the company. Though a few dollars above California's $8 minimum wage, that's just 94 cents more than the poverty-level wage of $11.06, according to 2011 data from the Economic Policy Institute. Moreover, the company stands accused of blocking union activity and chasing organizers off its premises.
Advertising watchdogs also have criticized American Apparel for its overtly sexual marketing tactics, and Charney has faced several lawsuits alleging sexual harassment, which he famously proclaimed were a "testimony to his success."
"I'm not an angel," said Charney. "I'm a normal guy, but we're paying a fair wage or at least attempting to pay a fair wage. We haven't nailed it, but we're trying to do it."
He contends that in recent years other apparel companies have chosen to limit their direct manufacturing, effectively converting into "design, distribute and sell" operations, in order to lower costs and save themselves from dealing with the ebb and flow of managing production lines.
"This is the apparel industry -- it's all about deadline," said Charney. "You've got to get these sweatshirts or this swimwear by a certain day, or you're nailed, and you're out of business."
The pressure on third-party manufacturers like those in Bangladesh has reached a breaking point, according to Charney. Strict cutoff dates and lack of cooperation from retailers has pushed factories in poor countries to their limits, forcing them to do whatever it takes to get the job done, he said.
"There's no 1-800 number to call [Canadian retailer] Joe Fresh and say, 'Hey, my building's falling apart and it might be unsafe,'" he added.
It's a sharp contrast to the situation in the U.S., where a variety of watchdogs -- from government agencies like the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration to the probing eyes of the media -- are supposed to force U.S. manufacturers like American Apparel to keep things in line. Charney argued factories halfway across the world in Bangladesh aren't under the same sort of scrutiny, allowing manufacturers to get away with whatever they want.
"If there's something unsafe at my factory I'm shutting that thing down," he said. "If not, one wrong move and it's all exposed. That's a good thing. That's not a bad thing."
American Apparel knows this firsthand. The company had to let go a large chunk of its workforce in 2009 after an investigation by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement revealed that thousands of employees were unauthorized to work in the country.
Despite his criticism of overseas manufacturing, Charney said apparel retailers shouldn't pull their business out of countries like Bangladesh; they should instead stay to help boost the local economy and provide jobs. The problem lies not in the location of the manufacturing, but in the rock-bottom wages and the treatment of workers, he said.
"Anything below two or three bucks an hour is outrageous," said Charney. "I don't care where it is in the world. The purchasing power of 10 bucks a week in the poorest of poor locations is bogus."