In Foreign Parts: Ice-cream tycoon turns to sweat-free clothes

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The Independent US

Here's a story that could only come true in southern California. A socially conscientious former ice-cream mogul decides to set up shop in the Los Angeles garment district, home to some of the worst sweatshops in the Western world. Except that his establishment promises not to be a sweatshop.

He promises a living wage, plus benefits, to his workers, with proper working hours, hi-tech machinery and a generally touchy-feely corporate culture. On top of that, he expects to turn a profit.

The man in question is Ben Cohen, of Ben & Jerry's, the world's most socially progressive ice-cream company. Anyone else you might laugh out of court. But Mr Cohen has something of a track record in balancing what appear to be contradictory business dicta and coming out on top.

After all, this is a man who gave away millions of Ben & Jerry's dollars to anti-globalisation movements such as the Ruckus Society, even as he was negotiating to sell the company to Unilever, one of the biggest corporate globalisers of them all.

Perhaps Mr Cohen feels a little guilty about the bad blood that the sale caused two years ago. Or perhaps he is just an optimist. Either way, his Hot Fudge Social Venture Fund has ploughed $1.5m (£1m) into a casual clothing company, SweatX, which opened for business this week to great fanfare in a warehouse in the centre of LA's garment district.

"Hot Fudge isn't a foundation," Mr Cohen said at the opening festivities. "We expect to make a profit on our investment." The gamble is that customers will find the idea of a sweat-free clothing line attractive enough to offset the company's higher labour costs.

In theory, there should be a ready-made market on college campuses around the country, since student body after student body has demonstrated against the labour practices of Nike, Gap and other popular brands, urging university officials to find companies that do not exploit Third World workforces to produce campus sports gear.

According to Doug Waterman, SweatX's chief executive, who took a 50 per cent pay cut from his former job as a commercial banker, the key to success is not keeping wages down, since labour accounts for just 5 per cent of the price of clothing; it is speed. That is why SweatX has invested in air-driven sewing machines and a $200,000 computerised cutter that can make patterns out of cloth five times faster than a human being.

Theory is one thing, though, and practice another. Nobody, for now, is daring to say whether SweatX will work as hoped.

"Will we succeed? All I can say is, we'll see," Mr Cohen told the Los Angeles Times. He is giving the company one year to turn a profit. Activist groups who have campaigned for years to improve conditions for the estimated 150,000 garment workers in Los Angeles, many of whom are illegal immigrants toiling for sub-minimum wages with no job security, are delighted that Mr Cohen has jumped in the way that he has.

"The whole industry is based on the fact that workers are not paid properly," said Kimi Lee, of the Garment Workers' Centre, a non-profit organisation. "Hopefully, SweatX will be a successful business and a good example, but they'll be competing against every factory that's not doing things the right way."

Mr Cohen's start-up workforce – just 20 people for now, although the plan is to increase that number to 80 over the next few months – cannot believe its good luck to be on a starting salary of $8.50 (£5.90) an hour, with access to clean toilets and a lunchroom. Having a guaranteed break at all is a novelty, let alone the other perks, which include paid holidays and a cut of profits – assuming there are any.

The workers will be turning out high-quality T-shirts and sweatshirts, many of them bearing socially conscious slogans. The firm hopes to become a supplier for progressive organisations, such as trade unions and college campuses.