Gap or Crap?

A high street brand under pressure

Is Gap feeling the heat from anti-sweatshop campaigns? The clothes chain's announcement a few weeks ago of a 68 per cent drop in first-quarter earnings came on top of a $34m loss the previous quarter; its chief executive officer, Millard Drexler, described 2001 as being Gap's "most difficult year ever".

The Gap brand has been so persistently targeted by campaigners that it has become practically synonymous with "sweatshop labour" - the practice of subcontracting the manufacture of goods to developing-world factories where low pay and workplace abuses, such as child labour, poor safety, sexual and physical harassment and hostility to unions, are commonplace.

Gap, which uses roughly 3,600 factories worldwide, is no different from any other high street label. Clothes retailers now routinely manufacture just the concepts and brands, distancing themselves from actually making the product. Indeed, campaigners rarely advocate boycotts partly because it is so difficult to dress "sweat-free". But Gap's ubiquity - 2,966 stores in six countries - makes it an easy target. So does its irritatingly cheery, all-American advertising - and the ease with which "Gap" can be subverted to "Crap".

So is there a link between loss in trade and dodgy labour practices? Drexler said in February that the company has simply "misread fashion tea leaves" by deviating too far from its trusty brand script of bland denims, cargo pants, white T-shirts and khaki revivalism. On labour practices, it argues that it has cleaned up its act, with 80 full-time factory monitors working around the world. "We are enormously concerned about how our things are made," says its global affairs spokesperson, Tamsin Randlett. "We have developed the biggest compliance programme in the garment industry."

Campaigners disagree. "The reality we're hearing from labour activists on the ground in third-world countries is very different to what Gap would suggest," says Jamie Van Bramer, spokesperson for the US garment union Unite. The monitoring systems, according to Chantal Finney of the campaign group Labour Behind the Label, are inadequate. Just in the past two months, campaigners have received reports of violations of workers' rights, such as physical intimidation, unpaid wages, and sackings of pregnant or union-activist workers.

Moreover, Gap refuses to settle a three-year-old lawsuit alleging sweatshop conditions in the Saipan garment industry, although 18 similarly charged retailers have already done so; it still subcontracts to operators in China, where trade unionists are imprisoned; and it refuses to acknowledge such a thing as a living wage ("there are no definitions", says Randlett).

Campaigners suspect Gap and other firms of "greenwash", it being far easier (and less costly) to create the appearance of solving the problems than actually to do so. The multinationals may regret this approach. "From a marketing point of view," says Finney, "it is surprising that clothing companies have not understood the enormous potential of the ethical market, which at the moment doesn't have anywhere to take its custom."

For the time being, the sweat-free options remain limited to promotional merchandise from Ethical Threads, available on the music festival circuit this summer - or a subverted "Crap" T-shirt.