The Gap clothes chain is under attack...

Saturday, March 11, 2000
News Review: The burning issue of the world's casual uniform
The Gap clothes chain is under attack from a growing band of angry activists

By Susannah Herbert

The international protest brigade has a new all-purpose, one-size-fits-all villain - which currently stands accused of robbing us of our identities, exploiting Third World labour, torturing Indian animals, destroying the Californian forests and violating the charms of Paris.

The Gap clothing chain - supplier of T-shirts and cargo pants to the world's casually-dressed go-getters and their children - may seem an improbable candidate for a global "baddie of the year" award.

Customers at Gap Inc's 3,000 shops worldwide - which include the brands Banana Republic and Old Navy - reckon they get good value for money. The clothes have that agreeable classless classic look, don't shrink, run or cause cancer and the company is unlikely to destroy the planet with clouds of poisonous gas or nuclear explosions.

Its San Francisco headquarters features a roof planted with native grasses for eco-friendly insulation and offers baby-friendly quiet rooms for nursing mothers and health insurance to the partners of its gay staff. By most standards, Gap Inc would seem to be a model progressive corporation.

Yet Gap's neat blue and white logo and innocuously cheery posters happy smiling people urging "Everyone Into Cords! Everyone Into Khakis!" have recently become the target of an astonishingly broad alliance of agitators, who get more agitated every day.

The khaki-and-denim wearing classes worldwide first woke up to Gap's growing pariah status last November when their televisions showed demonstrators in Seattle for the World Trade Organisation talks setting fire to a pair of Gap cotton trousers outside a Gap store.

Their posters suggested this was no ordinary customer complaint about crooked seams: "GAP Greedy Awful Practices". "Gap equals Crap". "Gap just can't get enough . . . money" sang the protesters, to the tune of the song used on Gap's ad campaign.

The "pants on fire" incident wasn't the first time that Gap shops had been targeted for direct action, but it marked a violent acceleration in anti-Gap campaigning.

GAP Inc - and 17 other prominent clothing retailers - was accused of operating "a racketeering conspiracy" in the federal court in January 1998 by a coalition of US garment unions and the advocacy group Global Exchange.

They alleged that the companies were violating human rights legislation by importing stock from sweatshops in the US dependent territory of Saipan, one of the Mariana islands in south-east Asia.

Unsurprisingly, the unions prefer to play up the human rights angle, although their action seems to owe as much to protectionist fear of competition as to altruism. Unlike goods from other countries, imports from US territories like Saipan do not have to pay tariffs and their cheap labour costs make them a serious threat to the mainland US garment industry.

The case is not over, for although several of the retailers have cut a deal with their tormentors, Gap denies the allegations, claiming that its Vendor Code of Conduct obliges all its contractors to "treat all workers with respect and dignity and provide them with a safe and healthy environment". It has circulated a formal statement on the case, but has refused further comment.

This silence has prompted its critics to redouble the pressure and find new allies. They haven't had to look far: as Global Exchange boasts, groups who are only too pleased to jump on the anti-Gap bandwagon include the San Francisco Living Wage Coalition, Save the Redwoods/Boycott the Gap Campaign and something called Wetlands Preserve. In addition, more than 100 labour, religious and human rights groups have endorsed the cause.

The environmentalists of San Francisco have been particularly enthusiastic: they have had Gap Inc in their sights for two years, since the company's founding dynasty, the Fisher family, bought 350 square miles of timberlands in Mendocino County, the heart of Giant Redwood country, just north of San Francisco. The area is being used for sustainable logging.

If the Fishers ever imagined that trees would be a better long-term investment than the global retail trade, they were soon corrected by the green lobby - who were outraged when the new owners refused to set aside any lands for conservation.

Since then, the tree-huggers have launched an all-out war, with Gap's communications staff insisting in vain that the Mendocino Redwood Company has no affiliation with Gap Inc and is funded through a private investment firm.

The greens and the no-sweat-shoppers now present a formidable joint anti-Gap force, whether linking up their internet sites, briefing schoolchildren or staking out the home of Donald Fisher, Gap chairman with the refrain: "Hey, Mr. Fisher, you've got a store, what do you want the redwoods for?" These days, scarcely a week goes by without reports of new Gap attacks in America: the first Saturday of every month has been designated Anti-Gap Day of Action and shoppers in California, Boston and New York risk running a gauntlet of petitioners whenever they buy a sweatshirt.

The campaigners are inventive, both at dressing up and dressing down: there have been anti-Gap strippers crying they'd rather go naked than wear the brand and Christmas saw anti-Gap Santas - who were eventually bundled into police vans after educating their onlookers on Gap's alleged crimes. A NATIONAL campaign is now underway to persuade students and schoolchildren to cut the labels from their Gap clothes and send them to the Fishers together with centrally-drafted letters of complaint, downloaded from the internet.

The bulletin board of the website is a cacophony of accusation: the occasional Gap shop assistant who posts a notice saying the chain is a pretty cool place to work for and pays well becomes a target of instant abuse.

The student who points out that Gap's labour sourcing is no worse than that of any other medium-priced retailer is accused of conniving in global oppression.

Olya Milenkaya, who runs the environmentalist group at Palo Alto high school, says her classmates' choice of clothes is causing her mental anguish. She told the local newspaper, the Town Crier: "It becomes very disturbing, learning about the exploitation of workers and the clearcutting of trees, and then walking down the hall to class and seeing 30 Gap sweatshirts, one after the other," she said.

Last month Chrissie Hynde, the singer and animal rights activist, denounced the company for using Indian leather, thereby encouraging the cruelty to cows allegedly committed by the Indian leather industry. In France, where few people seem to care about redwoods, Indian cows or labour conditions on the Mariana Islands, anti-Gappers appeal to deep-seated sentiment instead. One conservation group in Paris has just accused the company of "contributing to the erosion of the romantic and intellectual character of the Rive Gauche".

Presumably it's also convinced that Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir would never have worn Gap polo shirts.

Gap Inc claims to be unscarred by the vilification. In the past year it has opened a further 500 shops and watched net sales rise from pounds 5.6 billion to pounds 7 billion. Profits are up by a third.

Our classless casual-dressing modern society may cherish its conscience, but it needs its uniform more.

(This article was reprinted by The Ottawa Citizen and the Calgary Herald.)

Letter to the London Daily Telegraph Editor

Dear Editor,

Re "The burning issue of the world's casual uniform" by Susannah Herbert (March 11, 2000): I would like to correct an inaccuracy in this otherwise arch and informative article regarding the ethical crisis at Gap, Inc., the clothing retail giant controlled by the Fisher family of San Francisco.

In the article, Ms. Herbert states that the Gap Fishers' redwood forestland in Mendocino County, California, "is being used for sustainable logging." This could not be further from the truth. The Fishers' logging company was denied Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification--a green label indicating that the wood was harvested sustainably--by not one, but two certifying groups (ISF/Smartwood and Scientific Certification Systems), because they DO NOT LOG SUSTAINABLY (note that the FSC are acknowledged experts in the field of sustainable forestry). Further, they have no approved Sustained Yield Plan, and, in fact, they have publicly announced that they have abandoned the sustained yield process. They are logging at the liquidation rate of 40 Million boardfeet per year--a rate that even the most conservative critics say is twice what these raked over forestlands can sustain.

In addition, the Gap Fishers are using devastating harvesting practices, such as clearcutting, logging the last of the old growth, high-grading (taking all the biggest trees), and herbicide application, with dire consequences on endangered fish and wildlife--all the while claiming to be "good stewards of the land." We suspect they are squeezing the last nickel and life out of this forestland to make way for lucrative subdivisions to accommodate California's burgeoning population.

We will not stop our campaign until the Gap Fishers put this depleted quarter of a million acres into a conservation land trust or until everyone equates the Gap with greed-driven, heinous environmental destruction.

Mary Bull
National Coordinator, Save the Redwoods - Boycott the Gap Campaign
252 Frederick Street, San Francisco, California 94119, USA

For questions and comments please e-mail us!

Return to the Gap Boycott main page

All pages designed and coded by ElkSoft Web Design
Copyright 1998-2000 Save The Redwoods/Boycott The Gap. All rights reserved.

Made on a Mac