Mitch Cahn is the founder and president of Unionwear, a leading manufacturer of apparel, headwear, bags and other products, made responsibly by union workers in the United States. Mitch is also a leader in the national anti-sweatshop movement and a tireless advocate for the idea that “happy workers are good for business.”
Ethix: Unionwear remains firmly planted in the United States. What about your personal background or values led you to buck the outsourcing trend?
Mitch Cahn: I worked at Bear Stearns for a few years moving money around and found it a very unfulfilling career. I left there determined to add value and found manufacturing was a way I could actually create value from nothing. The reward is in the never-ending challenge of continuous improvement. My personal interest is in being involved in the product development cycle, eliminating wasteful manufacturing steps and redesigning products so domestic, union labor can be used and still meet the clients’ price points. I enjoy managing production so quality and service lead to reorders, then improving our production processes on those reorders, and continuing the cycle.
Ethix: You have argued that “workplace satisfaction creates sustainable profits.” Is this idea gaining or losing steam?
Mitch Cahn: This idea builds momentum every time the premium paid for products made by satisfied workers shrinks because businesses who reward their workers have an easier time selling their products. Worker rights as a meme continues to grow exponentially when a previously exploited worker has disposable income the additional demand creates a virtuous cycle which shifts power from employer to employee.
Unsatisfied workers now have more access to information about alternatives through social media and web access. The growing awareness of worker rights in the third world has driven up the cost of exploitation. Rising wages in Asia have created a consumer class there which has driven up consumer demand worldwide, making raw materials and fuel more expensive. When raw materials increase differences in labor costs become less relevant. When demand for fuel grows supply chains become more localized. As production starts to return to the point of consumption, exploitation becomes less acceptable.
So employers who have prioritized workplace satisfaction have seen markets for their products grow. Employers who have tried to squeeze labor have seen their expenses grow.
Ethix: Can you share a specific example that demonstrates how Unionwear benefits from having well-paid, union workers?
Mitch Cahn: We have virtually no worker turnover. The costs in lost production that result from high turnover will always dwarf the savings on paying lower wages to a new hire. Workers work together to streamline production and come up with their own strategies to improve productivity. Veteran workers identify with our clients, take pride in the quality of their work, and see the benefits of repeat business, year after year. Long tenure means supervisors come up from the factory floor and the resulting cooperation with operators makes for a more efficient workplace.
Ethix: As more and more organizations choose to buy from Unionwear (and other Union Made in America brands), what impact does that have on individual garment workers toiling away in sweatshops in the developing world?
Mitch Cahn: It sends a strong message to developing world employers that price is not the only factor in purchasing, and that depressing wages is not the only strategy an employer can use to compete. It’s tough enough to compete with manufacturers in the right to work states here in America, but the tools we use to do so can all be employed to help manufacturers in the developing world control costs without cutting corners. Things like leveraging scale to provide inexpensive but valuable benefits to workers. Reducing worker turnover. Getting the whole factory behind working smarter rather than working harder.
Ethix: Can you link to a couple of resources that you wish everyone would check out, to help move us forward toward a better world?
Mitch Cahn: Lean Toast is a video that explains the principles of value added work in lean manufacturing in an environment anyone can understand–making toast.
Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman expores why people make the same judgment errors over and over and why misconceptions and biases persist.
LivingEconomies.org is the website for BALLE, the Business Allliance for Local Living Economies, which has been the national voice for the growing buy local movement.
We look forward to your thoughts. You can also download the entire interview here.
Click here to read Mitch’s column, Do the Math, on our blog.