Behind the Label: Tommy Hilfiger’s Promise Collection

Tommy Hilfiger’s new capsule collection aims to bring attention to extreme poverty in Africa. But what about the poverty that exists in the third-world garment factories where he manufactures?

Tommy Hilfiger has a reputation for producing classic, casual, on-trend fashion. But with its new Promise Collection, Tommy is making a foray into the world of social enterprise. The 30-piece capsule collection features “American design classes reinterpreted with African colors, prints, and motifs,” says the release, and 100 percent of all proceeds will benefit Millennium Promise, an international nongovernmental organization co-founded by economist Jeffrey Sachs that intends to halve extreme poverty worldwide by 2015.

The Collection debuted in April, with much fanfare and a look book featuring warm-fuzzy photos of Katie Holmes, the collection’s global ambassador. But with a fashion collection benefiting global poverty, one has to ask – how does Tommy Hilfiger’s business practices support – or perpetuate – conditions of poverty in the places that he manufactures?

Tommy Hilfiger blazed on the scene in 1985 with a youthful line of classic American sportswear. The brand has grown with much the same casual but classic aesthetic, with a Hilfiger denim spin-off label that focuses on the 18-28 demographic. With distribution in over 90 countries and $4.6 billion value, Tommy Hilfiger is one of the world’s leading apparel and retail brands.

The Good

Founded by philanthropist Ray Chambers and Sachs in 2005, Millennium Promise’s main purpose is to accelerate the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals, an ambitious set of aims – like reduce maternal mortality by three quarters and achieve universal primary education – that 189 member states signed on to achieve by 2015.

The MDGs reflect an understanding of the many interconnected factors that contribute to extreme poverty and include time-bound and measurable targets to address income poverty, hunger, disease, lack of adequate shelter and exclusion—while promoting gender equality, education and environmental sustainability. Bill Gates has called them “the best idea for focusing the world on fighting global poverty that [he has] ever seen.”

Millennium Promise focuses its efforts on Africa, and through the Millennium Villages project, it attempts to fight poverty at a local level by addressing issues in agriculture, education, health, infrastructure, gender equality, and business development.

According to press materials, Tommy Hilfiger was first introduced to the work of Millennium Promise in 2009, and he made his first visit to Millennium Villages in Ruhiira, Uganda, in 2010.

When I first visited Ruhiira in 2010 I was deeply affected by the level of poverty. Millennium Promise had already started to work towards improving basic health care, food supplies and access to water, but there was still a lot to achieve. It was an eye-opening experience and I knew, after that visit, that I had to be involved even more in putting an end to poverty on this level.

Full proceeds from The Promise Collection will benefit Millennium Promise projects in Ruhiira, a cluster of six villages spread out over several hundred square kilometers of southwestern Uganda. Through a digital campaign, customers will also be able to track how purchases have a direct impact on life in Ruhiira, in areas like food, health, education, environment, and technology. As of June 1, $1,466,929 had been earmarked for projects.

The Bad

While creating a capsule collection to raise awareness and funds is one way to go about addressing extreme poverty, it takes only a little bit of probing to see that Tommy Hilfiger’s global manufacturing practices aren’t exactly the most ethical. The hourly wage for workers producing Tommy Hilfiger garments ranges from 23 cents to $1.75, according to a PBS documentary on the denim industry. And sweatshop conditions have been reported in factories everywhere from Mexico to Thailand to the tiny Pacific island commonwealth of Saipan.

But perhaps one of the most disturbing recent reports came from Bangladesh, where a 2012 garment factory fire killed 29 people. It was later found that hazardous electric wiring, lack of safety equipment, and padlocked gates were to blame for the deaths, according to an ABC News investigative report. Details of the incident were oddly reminiscent of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City in 1911, which killed 146 garment workers, exposed sweatshop-like conditions in garment factories, and jumpstarted the American worker’s rights movement.

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Confronted about the incident before his show at New York Fashion Week, Hilfiger initially said that he upheld a “gold standard” for worker safety, and that the company was no longer working with the Bangladeshi factories. However, shipping records procured by ABC News said otherwise. Later, Hilfiger and Emanuel Chirico, CEO of parent company Phillips-Van Heusen, agreed to a television interview with ABC News, in which they admitted that Tommy Hilfiger still works with factories in Bangladesh.

According to Scott Nova, executive director of the Workers Rights Consortium, Bangladesh is one of the cheapest places in the world to manufacture. “It has the lowest wages – 21 cents an hour – the weakest regulations, the weakest attention to workplace health and safety,” he told ABC News.

Hilfiger and Chirico maintain that the only way to create change in Bangladeshi worker conditions is to continue working with factories to improve their conditions. In the meantime, three other Hilfiger factory employees have died in recent safety-related accidents, one when a frayed elevator cable snapped and two others when workers rushed to open padlocked gates after a boiler explosion.

The Questionable

In press materials for the Promise Collection, Tommy Hilfiger said that he was “moved” by the challenges facing impoverished people in Africa and inspired to do something about it.

It was a lifechanging experience. The trip inspired me to raise even more awareness–as well as funds–in order to help this cause. As a designer the best way to do that was, naturally, to design a collection and donate 100% of all proceeds to the important work that is being done to eradicate extreme poverty.

As a designer, that may be one way to address poverty. But as the head of one of the world’s leading apparel brands, Hilfiger also has the power to address global poverty by simply doing better business – paying fair wages, insisting on improved conditions, and contributing to the communities in which they manufacture. While Bangladesh’s garment industry has provided that necessary first step out of extreme poverty, it is still a place where 50 percent of the population lives under the international poverty line of $1.25 per day. Before Hilfiger attempts to combat conditions in Africa, he needs to first look at the poverty that exists right under his nose, in the communities that produce his polo shirts, cabana shorts, and beach towels.


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Jessica Marati

Jessica Marati currently resides in New York City and covers travel and sustainability for EcoSalon. Catch her weekly column, Behind the Label.