American Apparel’s ex-CEO Dov Charney was notorious for his sexist business practices, and that was just the tip of the iceberg. When he wasn’t sexually harassing his employees, he was making snide comments about plus-size women (to underscore this, the brand tends to run small), throwing dirt (yes really) at employees after making racist and homophobic comments, and overseeing a company repeatedly rocked by scandal. Now, Charney is out — terminated for cause with the company moving fast to replace him.
Critics of the company are already celebrating an anticipated change in work environment, company culture and policies (perhaps American Apparel will stop firing cancer patients and making hiring decisions on the basis of appearance), but they might want to temper their excitement. The problems at American Apparel run far deeper than just Charney, and are reflective of much bigger issues in the retail clothing industry. The firm is part of the fast fashion industry, and fast fashion waits for no one.
Many of the retail practices that so offend consumers are likely to persist at American Apparel, as Charney alone wasn’t responsible for the company’s culture. As a sifting through grievance filings from employees reveals, supervisors and other staff were accused of sexism, sexual harassment, racialized comments, and other harassment at American Apparel stores and distribution centers. Like other fast fashion establishments (Gap, Forever 21, H&M), American Apparel is likely to continue discriminating against new hires on the basis of appearance, and firing people who experience life events that change their appearance. These calculated business decisions are designed to maintain a certain “look” for employees, one desirable not just to Charney, but the industry as a whole.
There’s a darker story behind the company, though. What about the workers who make the garments? American Apparel prides itself as a sweatshop-free, made-in-the-USA brand, but what are conditions like for those who labor in the Los Angeles-based facilities where the company’s clothes are made? In 2011, a garment worker was killed on a circular knitting machine at an American Apparel facility, and it wasn’t the first time the company had an injury involving a knitting machine. Furthermore, the company has been accused of exploiting undocumented immigrants as a labor force, even though this group is notoriously vulnerable to abuse by employers and supervisors.
That doesn’t suggest that American Apparel fosters a great working environment for its garment workers, and it gets worse. The company has engaged in aggressive unionbusting tactics including threatening and intimidating workers who try to organize to protect their rights, slow down production lines for safety, and change other dangerous policies at American Apparel factories. Given how all-American unions are, it’s surprising to see a company that brands itself as the epitome of sustainable, all American fashion refusing to allow workers to organize. It’s almost as though American Apparel thinks it has something to fear from its garment workers.
Now more than ever, with garment worker deaths in East Asia a sobering reminder of the cost of cheap fashion, a company making ethical garments in healthy facilities with workers who are respected and given fair treatment would be making a major statement. American Apparel, however, was never that company — and it’s unlikely to become such a firm even after the ouster of its notorious CEO.
Photo credit: dovcharney.