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Clothes Made With a Conscience

TeamX is approaching schools in the hopes of gaining consumers who are willing to pay more for its products.

June 20, 2003|Elizabeth Kelly | Times Staff Writer

Chris Mackin hopes the X of his company's brand, SweatX, will one day become as ubiquitous as Nike's swoosh logo.

The X marks Los Angeles-based apparel manufacturer TeamX's stand against poor working conditions in garment shops, but it also could stand for one key variable: Will consumers pay more for a product made by a self-described socially responsible company?

So far, not enough have.

Proving that good intentions also can be good business is the distinguishing element of the SweatX message. It's a lofty goal, and one that has not yet paid off for TeamX, which began operations more than a year ago with financing from a charity run by Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry's ice cream fame.

Sales topped $1 million during its first year, and Mackin, who has been the company's chief executive since February, expects to double that figure this year "if all goes well." But the business has not yet posted a profit.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday June 21, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 50 words Type of Material: Correction
SweatX apparel -- An article in Friday's Business section about TeamX, a Los Angeles apparel manufacturer, misstated the production cost of a TeamX T-shirt as 45 cents. That amount is the sewing cost and does not include many other costs associated with making a shirt, including fabric, cutting and overhead.

Still, Mackin believes a refined business plan targeting schools, unions and entertainers as well as private-label clients will build a foundation of like-minded customers for its line of custom-order T-shirts, sweats and fleece jackets.

Ana Cikara is exactly the kind of customer Mackin hopes to attract.

Cikara, 18, is a student at James Monroe High School in L.A. She used what she learned in her international relations class about sweatshop conditions here and abroad to persuade administrators to switch the school's gym uniform supplier to TeamX. The school was able to negotiate a price less than a dollar more per piece than its previous contract, and Cikara and fellow students celebrated with a field trip to TeamX's downtown factory.

"This kind of spontaneous support is what can really make us a success," Mackin told the students as they stood next to the sewing machine of Ana Acevedo, a TeamX worker stitching a pile of the school's royal blue gym shorts.

The moment was particularly meaningful for Yamilet Guerra, 17, whose parents had worked in the garment industry when they came to Los Angeles from Mexico and El Salvador. Guerra spoke in Spanish with a group of workers, who thanked her for the students' support.

"It reminded me of my parents," Guerra said. "I'm so glad we are capable of making a difference."

Unlike most garment workers in Southern California, TeamX employees belong to the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees. TeamX pays its workers close to $11 an hour -- far more than the state minimum wage of $6.75 and the meager rates paid to many garment workers overseas -- and provides medical, dental and vision insurance.

Mackin acknowledged that because of such benefits, the basic cost of a SweatX T-shirt is about 45 cents, compared with the pennies-per-shirt cost of similar apparel sewn in Asia.

The higher costs have hampered TeamX's growth. The company now receives funds from another philanthropic investment fund, Barred Rock Fund of Vermont.

The private company has had cash flow problems and was forced to lay off workers in March, although it rehired 20 this week. With them, the firm has 46 employees.

Mackin attributes TeamX's problems to typical start-up shakiness. But others say the company's mission may not be much of a selling point.

"Something like 36% of all apparel is bought at Wal-Mart, which manufactures exclusively overseas," said Ilse Metchek, executive director of the California Fashion Assn., a local manufacturers trade group. "So the message is that the public does not care."

TeamX is counting on young consumers such as Cikara and Guerra to buck that trend -- and carry its message. On Thursday, the company encouraged the students to write to Gov. Gray Davis in support of two "Sweat-Free" bills in the state Legislature, which would require apparel contractors to abide by a code of ethics. TeamX also is working with Monroe High School teacher Mark Elinson to bring SweatX products into more Los Angeles Unified schools.

Mackin's plan for the firm includes offering more athletic gear made with high-tech fabrics and a fashion line of embellished shirts featuring an X logo.

Howard Levine agrees that it was his social conscience that encouraged his company, Berkeley-based Alliance Graphics, to join forces with TeamX and design graphics for its T-shirts.

"I've always tried to find union shops, but 99.9% are either not union or not made in the U.S.A.," Levine said.

Not surprisingly, an early supporter of TeamX was the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, which sells fleece SweatX vests and other items at a discount to its members.

"This is a groundbreaking organization here in Los Angeles in that they have a union contract, benefits, vacation time -- the things that are important for a standard of living," said Nancy Oshima, director of administration. "It hasn't been proven in the past that success goes hand in hand with workers' benefits."

Indeed, TeamX probably won't give Nike a run for its money anytime soon.

But Mackin said, "We're in a better position than we've ever been in ... and we know that we've put together a good shop."

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