Anti brand campaigners need context

UPDATE. Just read this post, in October 2022, and I’m kind of shocked. I so profoundly disagree with this post that it’s quite difficult to acknowledge that I even wrote it, twenty years ago. What a mug.

Anti-sweatshop campaigners have launched a campaign for a Christmas boycott of The Gap’s stores worldwide.

Gap is encouraging the exploitation of workers in six countries, the activists say. They presented a New York conference yesterday with documented evidence of “abusive working conditions” collected from interviews with 200 people in more than 40 factories making Gap garments in Cambodia, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Lesotho, El Salvador and Mexico for the company’s global network of more than 4,000 shops. “

The problem with these attacks is that they come from an intrinsically anti-business perspective. It’s impossible for the critics to see the progress the mega-brands are making and – worse – to imagine the brands ever making a positive contribution to the well-being of workers or economies. None of the press coverage (BBC, Newsday, WNBC NY, Guardian) for this new boycott can supply any context – what would Lesotho’s economy look like without Gap? What is the average hourly wage in Cambodia?

A rational approach to the brands would use their massive economic clout – within the developing economies and in home markets – to effect change. In China, Reebok (after decades of pressure from campaigners, naturally) is actually organising labour against the wishes of the authorities – using market clout to defy a repressive government. Nike, Gap, Levi’s et al have invested millions in monitoring and compliance. Many now work locally to improve conditions by bullying governments and entrenched power. Businesses, unlike some other institutions, are not monolithic – they can and do change.