Wiping off the sweat

Few catalogers will tackle the topic, and it’s easy to see why. But when it comes to addressing the sweatshop issue, silence may not be golden.

Talbots, J.C. Penney, J. Crew, Nordstrom, Brylane, Brooks Brothers, and Dress Barn were among the catalogers named in two federal class-action lawsuits filed over the past year on behalf of more than 50,000 workers on the island of Saipan, a U.S. territory near The Philippines. The catalogers, along with other marketers and manufacturers, were accused of violating federal law by engaging in a “racketeering conspiracy” using predominately young Asian women to produce their clothes under deplorable working conditions, according to Sweatshop Watch, an Oakland, CA-based watchdog group. As of late March, a number of the companies named, including J. Crew, Nordstrom, and Brylane, had settled their suits and separated from the vendors in question.

“Everybody knows” sweatshops exist, says Peter Canzone, president/CEO of multititle apparel cataloger Brylane, whose Chadwick’s of Boston catalog was cited in a similar lawsuit last year. “In our case, we had maybe two or three of our vendors manufacturing there, and we warned them that we wouldn’t accept more merchandise from them. Actually, I don’t think anyone will dare use those shops anymore.”

Other marketers contacted by Catalog Age weren’t as forthcoming. Talbots spokeswoman Margery Myers, for instance, said she wouldn’t comment because she’d yet to receive a copy of the suit. In an article in the Boston Herald in early March, however, she claimed that “none of the factories with which we do business in Saipan has been cited for labor law violations as far as we’re aware.”

Removing the stigma

The Saipan lawsuits aren’t scheduled to be heard until Feb. 27, 2001. In the meantime, the catalogers named in the suits have to disassociate themselves from the stigma of allegedly supporting sweatshops. Negative press regarding sweatshops can make analysts nervous and frighten investors, says Kevin Silverman, an investment analyst with ABN AMRO. He adds, though, that similar cases in the past didn’t have much of an impact on companies’ sales.

With regard to public relations initiatives, when Chadwick’s of Boston was named in a sweatshop-related suit last year, Brylane “didn’t do anything actively,” Canzone says. “We received very few letters and answered them individually. But since we didn’t hear very much from customers at all, we felt it wouldn’t make a lot of sense to make a big issue out of it, since it’s a sensitive topic to begin with.”

But Lisa Hahn, president of public relations firm Caugherty Hahn Communications, whose catalog clients include multititle mailer Foster & Gallagher, cautions that silence can be deadly. “These allegations and citations are not always based on fact,” she says. “Special-interest groups and con gresspeople will use these class-action lawsuits combined with the media as a vehicle to initiate and pass legislation. Any negative publicity for catalogers, despite the fact that they are more removed than the vendors and the factory owners, is going to impact the company.”

What’s more, the catalogers named in class-action suits often do not receive the actual court documents until long after the media have reported their contents. With that in mind, Hahn advises companies to take any steps necessary to obtain all of the facts as soon as possible – even if the documentation is still wending its way through the corporate legal department. And if the company is at fault, it should admit the truth and quickly remedy the situation.

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