Reading: Example: The American Apparel Story


Little Red Riding Hood by Natalia Rivera. CC-BY.

Dov Charney is an American immigrant success story, but he’s not exactly a “Give me your tired, your poor” kind of immigrant. He’s a Canadian who came to America to attend an expensive private university.

He ended up founding American Apparel (AA), a clothing manufacturer producing trendy t-shirts and basics selling mainly to a young, edgy crowd.

Based in Los Angeles, their factory is among the biggest clothes-making operations in the nation. It employs almost five thousand workers. Those workers are well known for a number of reasons:

  • Just having workers sets AA apart. Nearly all US clothing manufacturers outsource their cutting and sewing to poor countries. From Mexico to China, you can find factories paying locals fifty cents an hour to do the same kind of work they do at AA. The difference is the sewers working in Los Angeles typically get around fifteen dollars an hour. That’s not a lot in Southern California, but it’s enough to make them—according to AA—the best paid garment workers in the world.
  • The workers don’t report to bosses so much as each other. They organize as independent teams paid a base wage of eight dollars an hour. On top of that they receive a bonus depending on how much they produce. So they get together, set their own targets, and go for them. This liberating of the workforce led to nearly a tripling of output and was matched by about a doubling of wages.
  • The company features a generous stock options program to help workers buy shares in the enterprise.
  • On its own initiative, the company provides basic health-care services through a clinic tucked into a factory corner. It provides bikes to employees, helping them zip through the downtown traffic morass without adding pollution to the infamous city smog. There are free telephones in the factory for employees to use to call family members at home.
  • Many of those employees’ family members are in other countries; AA has a very large immigrant workforce.
  • Many of those immigrants are in the country illegally, which partially explains why the company has been on the forefront of amnesty campaigns, organizing public rallies and media events of all kinds for the undocumented. Called Legalize LA, the campaign’s title references the fact that a tremendous number of Southern Californians outside AA are also illegal immigrants.
  • In 2009, the federal government indicated to AA that 1,800 of its workers were using Social Security numbers and other identifying documents that had been purchased, stolen, or just plain invented. In any case, they didn’t match up. The company was forced to fire the employees.


  1. Workers at Charney’s America Apparel are the highest-paid mass-production sewers in the world.
  • In terms of Charney’s duties to the self, what ethical case can be made in favor of this high pay?
  • In terms of Charney’s duties to others, what ethical case can be made in favor of this high pay?
  • Are these wages fair? Why or why not?
  • In terms of duties—either the perennial duties or Kant’s categorical imperative—which is more recommendable: keeping the AA plant where and how it is, or moving it to Mexico and cutting the workers’ wages in half? Why is the decision you’ve made the better of the two?A few factors to consider:
    • In Mexico, the workers’ real pay in terms of local buying power would be much higher, even though the actual amount is less than what they receive here.
    • Many of the workers are illegal immigrants from Mexico; their legal situation would obviously be remedied and proximity to family would increase.
    • The national Mexican economy would benefit more from AA’s presence than does the US economy.
  • Kant’s categorical imperative requires that others be treated as ends and never as means.
    • In what way could the argument be made that the employees at AA are being treated as means, and therefore Charney’s plant is unethical no matter how high his salaries may be?
    • Besides high pay, the company provides workers with considerable freedom to set their own work pace and schedule. The company also provides a stock purchase program. Do either or both of these factors alleviate the charge that the workers are treated as means and not ends? Why or why not?
  • Eighteen hundred of AA’s five thousand workers were using false papers and Social Security numbers to get their job. Charney knew all about that but chose to overlook it.
    • Leaving the law aside, how can that overlooking be justified ethically?
    • Leaving the law aside, how can Kant be used to cast that action as ethically wrong in terms of lying? In terms of stealing? In terms of using people as means instead of ends?
    • Charney and AA support illegal immigrants in two ways: by giving them jobs and by organizing popular protests in favor of their legalization. Ethically, are these two activities recommendable or not? Or is one recommendable and the other not?
  • Assuming it’s wrong for illegal immigrants to be working in America, who deserves the sterner ethical reprobation, Charney or the illegal workers? Explain in ethical terms.
  • The basic and natural rights of mainstream rights theory include the following:
    • Life
    • Freedom
    • Free speech
    • Religious expression
    • The pursuit of happiness
    • Possessions and the fruits of our work
    • How can these rights be mustered to support Charney’s hiring and keeping workers he knows are in the country illegally?
    • How can these rights be mustered to ethically denounce Charney for hiring and keeping workers he knows are in the country illegally?
    • Thinking about those workers, do these rights give them an ethical license to use false Social Security numbers and identifying documents? Why or why not?
  • Eddy Lepp ended up in jail for his medicinal marijuana garden, yet Charney sleeps in a million-dollar beach house. Is this fair?
  • Was AA wrong for hiring illegal workers? Did AA know the workers were illegal?
  • Do you think it’s ethical for AA to support causes and legislation for illegal immigrants? Does its support for illegal immigration help its workers or the company? Why?