American business leader Adam Neiman, founder of Bienestar International, which produces union-made, sweatshop-free apparel under the No Sweat label, has started a fair trade clothing business in Bethlehem with Palestinian Christians and Muslims. He was interviewed by Sojourners associate editor Rose Marie Berger in November 2006.
Sojourners: What got you started on this project?
Adam Neiman: Well, it was really serendipity. This young man, Joe Turner, wanted to import fair trade T-shirts into England. He heard there was a union factory in Bethlehem, and he called me up for advice. I said, "My God! We just answered the question 'What would Jesus wear?'" I arranged to meet him and the factory owner [Elias Ibrahim Alarja, the Palestinian-Christian owner of Arja Textile Co.] in Bethlehem to see if we could do business.
Sojourners: How did Alarja respond to your offer to work with them on producing fair trade organic cotton T-shirts for export?
Neiman: I arrive. We talk. He wants to do business. But he's confused. He doesn't get how I can turn his problem into an opportunity. He's sitting on a gold mine. But also everyone over there is severely traumatized.
Sojourners: How many people are employed in the factory, and what does "unionized" mean in the Palestinian context?
Neiman: There are about 70 people working there. First of all, they don't have collective bargaining yet, so they have an individual contract. All the workers are members of the Palestine General Federation of Trade Unions. While I was there Shaher Saed, the PGFTU general secretary, came to meet with us. He drove through six hours of roadblocks from Nablus to Bethlehem.
It took a little while to explain to Saed exactly what it was that we were doing. I don't think anybody in the entire history of the "rag trade" has ever insisted that the workers have the right to collective bargaining. But they agreed. After we get production rolling, then we'll get started organizing the elections.
Sojourners: What about wages?
Neiman: The workers earn above minimum wage. Occasionally, very skilled workers are making 200 percent of minimum wage. There's health care that covers workers and their families. There's something like 14 paid holidays and a 48-hour work week. That meets our standard. Socialist workers' paradise it ain't—but it's a decent job.
Sojourners: Where do you get the organic cotton for the clothes?
Neiman: In Turkey. There's a cotton industry, and there's a mill. Nothing very complicated. We do not guarantee our standards all the way up the supply chain at this point, and we're very clear about that. We expect, as we grow and prosper, to work our way up the supply chain.
Sojourners: Do you see this business as promoting scriptural values?
Neiman: Yes. I was thinking, "How do I project these values even though it's a fashion business? How do we do that without insulting any one religion?" Suddenly I look up, and on the side of the bank is a great big advertisement saying, "We protect everyone." Its symbol was the number one that's on a dollar bill. Our design incorporates that symbol. The one also is a reference to one God or the one thing we all agree on.
But it's also the dollar. What we're doing is "dollar diplomacy." Plus, one of the tricks that we're going to do with our "One" T-shirt line is to co-brand and co-fund-raise with people. For instance, we can link online with any group with a decent e-mail list. They send people to buy our "One" T-shirt, and we'll send a dollar to the Parents Circle project [a grassroots organization of bereaved Palestinian and Israeli parents] and a dollar back to the group for every T-shirt sold.
Sojourners: Is there a paradox in making money while promoting peace?
Neiman: For me, as a Jew, the greatest fallacy of Christianity is portraying "evil" as rich and sexy. To me, that's like advertising evil. The Jewish mentality is that evil is stupidity and ignorance. In our history, the prophet Job is the exception to the rule, not the rule. And someone prospering by doing the right thing was the rule. The real problem with people's corporate thinking is they put up a firewall in their mind. They think that doing the right thing is going to cost them. In fact, it's quite the contrary.
Sojourners: As a small business owner, how do changes in trade agreements affect you?
Neiman: I'm an internationalist. I don't believe protectionism, over the long haul, is the right strategy. I think that the more trade we have, then the more interaction we have with more people around the world, and the closer we get to the one world that we all want and need.
With "free trade" it's not surprising that the benefits have gone to the elites of both trading partners first, because they are the people who are communicating with each other. They are putting the deal together. Of course they make sure the deal is stacked in their favor.
But now, as the people who are not the elites—the workers and the consumers—start to interact with each other on a more direct level, we're going to see the workers and consumers and their interests become part of the deal.
Sojourners: How does the labor movement fit into this?
Neiman: The most important part of making sure that working peoples' interest is secured is a strong labor movement. There is no substitute. This is something that the fair trade movement hasn't really dealt with, and it's incredibly important that they do. Otherwise, fair trade becomes just a niche that will satisfy a handful of guilt-ridden, upper-middle-class consumers in the West. But it will be only a drop in the bucket as far as dealing with the core causes of world poverty.
Fair trade needs to move from guilt to solidarity. Guilt is a demeaning emotion. It's another way of exerting one's superiority. And it's repulsive to the recipients. Pity doesn't recognize the humanity, the equality, of working people. They don't want pity. They don't want a special break—they want an even break. The way you get an even break in economic democracy is for the workers to have a place at the table.
Sojourners: Do you see a strong labor movement as part of the democratization process?
Neiman: In order to maintain democracy, you need a labor movement. There's not a true democracy in the world that has achieved democratic capitalism and a thriving middle class without also having a strong labor movement.
It's insane that we are sending our young men and women to "defend democracy" with their bodies while sending our business dollars to tyrants. If you keep all your dollars for democracy, then you won't see a tyrant left in the world in a generation's time. The easiest way to do that is to shop union labor, because anywhere there's a union functioning, then there's at least an incipient democracy.
Sojourners: What's your "big picture" on this first project in Palestine?
Neiman: I see an opportunity to turn Palestine into the first full-scale experiment in fair trade development. If there's one thing that we can't afford there, it's another "free trade" fiasco. We can't wait however many generations it will take for the benefits to trickle down. It's got to be immediate.
Sojourners: What would a fair trade economy in Palestine look like?
Neiman: I can see a center for fair trade cotton. Engineering it. Growing it. Milling it. Then dye, knit, cut, sew, package, and embellish it all in-house. In the early stages everything has to be nonperishable. You can't have an industry based on something that can be shut down. So you want to look at olive oil. You want to look at garments. I think a lot of areas there would be great for hemp cultivation.
Sojourners: This project seems to bring together a lot of your hopes and dreams.
Neiman: What's so incredible is that we have all the basics. The cotton is organic so it protects the environment. The factory is a union shop, so it safeguards the rights of workers. The product is made in Palestine, so it promotes peace, prosperity, and democratic institutions in the heart of the Middle East. And it's from Bethlehem, which allows us to project all of these values in scriptural terms and really reach mainstream America on a level nobody has in a long time.
I know my American history. There's never been a successful progressive movement in this country that didn't strike those scriptural themes. Nobody's done it since Martin Luther King.
For more information, visit www.nosweatapparel.com.