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"My mission is to prove that there is a different way to do the garment trade and to do it right, " Adam Neiman told The Jewish Advocate last fall, explaining how the death of an older family member in 2000 inspired him to launch No Sweat Apparel in 2001. Life is short, says Neiman, and "if you want to do something, make a difference, make an impact, then don't wait."
We asked Adam to tell us more about the philosophy behind his business, what's next for No Sweat, and how a simple T-shirt can help change the Middle East.
Green America: What does your business do?
Adam Neiman: No Sweat Apparel is the Boston-based pioneer of Fair Trade fashion and footwear. We produce union-made clothing and sneakers in the US, Canada, and the developing world. Our chuck-style canvas and hemp sneaker was our first big break-out product, back in 2004. The product that's getting all the buzz this year is our new line of organic T-shirts from a Palestinian-owned, unionized factory in Bethlehem. We're getting rave reviews from al Jazeera (watch the video here), and just as good from The Jewish Advocate. It's the most exciting thing I've ever been involved in, other than my kids' birth.
Nice one: Organic, sweat-
free, and fostering peace.
What makes your company green?
Adam: We believe that the exploitation of humans and the exploitation of the planet are intimately related phenomena. So our first focus was the human part, since humans tend to be more concerned about nature when they are able to provide for their families. Now we're coupling the union-made, sweat-free dimension with organic cotton and a competitive price. And we have decent internal practices—recycled materials whenever possible, a tree donated with every online purchase to cut our carbon footprint, all that good stuff. As we move forward, we'll be able to do more.
What did you do before you started your green business? What motivated your entrepreneurship?
Adam: I was a slate-roofing contractor, which was pretty green too, actually. I discovered that if I treated my customers and my workers the way I would want to be treated, everybody wanted to come back and do business again the next day. I suspected this simple ethical proposition could have broader applications, and I started No Sweat to prove it. That's the short story. There's an epic version too, but I'm much more excited about the present and the future, especially what we're doing in Palestine right now, producing our organic cotton T-shirts.
What have been some of the biggest challenges of maintaining high standards of social and environmental responsibility?
Stamping out injustice.
Adam: We inspired a few very well-financed competitors before we got half-way to market in 2001, so getting noticed was tough at first. When we launched our sneaker in 2004 it was a total Hail Mary pass. We put a spec sheet of the wages and benefits in the shoe box and challenged Nike to do the same in a nice high-profile way. The press picked up the story, and we were off to the races. But the hardest part has been the ideological issues. The labor rights activists tend to be suspicious of markets and for-profit businesses. And the Greens often have mixed feelings about organized labor. So there was a whole blue/green divide to bridge.
What's been your proudest moment as a green business owner?
Adam: When I took my 13-year-old son backstage to meet Tom Morello (lead guitar of Audioslave and Rage Against the Machine), who had just taken a complete set of our gear for the band to wear on their world tour. (I'm still waiting for the pictures, by the way.)
What is the most hopeful sign you have seen recently from the green economy?
Adam: A friend of mine who is a libertarian Republican just started a green business!
What are you most excited about going forward?
Adam: The Bethlehem project, definitely. We've found this tiny piece of common ground, about the size of an organic T-shirt, that all parties to the conflict can agree on. More good jobs for Palestinians in Palestine will help the situation. So that's what we're creating. We've built a mechanism for ordinary people all over the world to help. In addition to online retail sales, we're selling these wholesale, custom-printed, organic T-shirts to Jewish, Christian, and Muslim schools and camps, NGOs, green businesses, and anarcho-atheistic punk rock bands! It's kind of incredible how many different types of people are wild about it.
The Middle East isn't the world's biggest problem. It's the world's biggest distraction from the really big, eternal problems of environmental degredation, poverty, and disease. But this distraction only gets bigger and more distracting the longer we don't deal with it.
There's a huge opportunity here to turn Palestine into the world's first full-scale model of Fair Trade development. If there's one place we can't afford another free trade fiasco, it's in Palestine. And because the land is particularly fragile, it's just as important that development be environmentally sustainable. While economic development isn't a substitute for a diplomatic solution between Israel and Palestine, it is probably a necessary precondition.
What advice would you give to other green entrepreneurs just starting out?
Made in the USA: A union-made tee from Bangor, PA.
Adam: Don't try this at home! Seriously, if I'd known when I started what I know now, I might not have done it.
Still, there are three basic things: do your homework, keep your credit strong, and forget about the "greatest good for the greatest number." Who really knows what the greatest good is? Loving your neighbor as yourself works just fine, as long as you define your neighborhood as the entire planet.
What green product can you not live without?
Adam: Seventh Generation dishwashing liquid, and organic cotton Q-tips!
Questions from readers:
Q: Your sneakers are awesome, but what about other sweatshop free shoes like dress shoes or boots? Do you have plans to make anything like that? — Kevin
Adam: We’re working on it. Sign up to the mailing list on the No Sweat Apparel home page, and we’ll keep you posted.
Q: I want to support no sweat apparel companies. However, I cannot find large sizes that enable that. My oldest son has a size 15 foot (He's 6'5") Where can a find less ordinary sizing? Thank you! Peace! — Carol Lynn
Adam: See the answer above.
Q: Hi, Adam. Two questions: 1) How did you locate your organic textile manufacturer? and 2) What did you mean when you answered "Don't try this at home!" to the question about advice for other green entrepreneurs just starting out? — Al
Adam: 1) They found us!, and 2) What I meant is it really isn’t always "no sweat" as far as the management of my company has been concerned. It’s been long hours for low pay for five years, though No Sweat is now starting to provide for my family’s basic needs. Yes, it’s been exciting, inspiring, interesting, and fulfilling. It’s also been harrowing, exhausting, frustrating, and occasionally infuriating. Presumably that’s why we'll make the big bucks some day. If that day does come, I really hope nobody objects!