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Screen printer offers a socially responsible model


Working from an old mill building in Pawtucket, a cradle of the industrial revolution, Rick Roth offers proof positive that companies can thrive by treating their workers well and emphasizing socially responsible business practices. Not only has Mirror Image, his custom screen-printing company, won industry accolades for the quality of its work, it happens in a place where, as the proprietor asserts, "The ultimate protection for our workers is to have a union."

With this combination, perhaps it's little surprise that Roth was recently named the CEO of SweatX, a unionized Los Angeles-based, worker-owned clothing manufacturing cooperative started with money from a socially responsible venture capital fund. Although competing with low-wage foreign imports remains a stiff challenge, Roth believes that there's more support than widely surmised as suggested by the availability of fair trade coffee at Starbucks and Dunkin' Donuts for "being part of a marketplace that cares."

A Connecticut native who attributes his idealism to growing up in the '60s, Roth, a youthful 50, started his T-shirt printing business for fun 15 years ago after studying at Harvard Divinity School. Although Roth still resides in Cambridge, he relocated Mirror Image to Pawtucket in 1999, attracted by the city's business-friendly attitude and the availability of cheaper office space in the two-story former John W. Little Company building near the Pawtucket Armory. While some business owners might gripe about unionized employees, foreign-born workers, and the cost of paying for health insurance for about 35 people, Roth cites all of these as advantages for Mirror Image. "The proof is that people stay here for a long time," he says.

Mirror Image prints a striking array of T-shirts, sweatshirts, and canvas bags for corporate clients and such institutions as Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. The use of high-density inks and gels makes it possible for the company to simulate the appearance of staples and Scotch tape on clothing. Roth, who considers himself a fortunate person, sees his business in large part as a way to try to do good things, like donating clothing for sale by the Music Makers Foundation and supporting organic cotton growers in the US. An active member of Amnesty International, he has seen how seemingly modest efforts like a fundraiser launched by adolescent students after the death of a victim of foreign human rights abuses brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars, giving the participants a heightened sense of their ability to effect change. (Closer to home, Roth gathered $1200 in symbolic $10 donations to replaced the sign of a local businessman of Middle Eastern background that had been vandalized after September 11.)

Although lowest common denominator practices remain prevalent in the clothing marketplace, Roth believes that removing the veil from exploitive practices offers the best hope for improving the situation. As he notes, when a garment is sold for $30 at a stadium concert, it's usually not the sewer, screen printer, or even the musician who makes the most from it. The answer, Roth suggests, lies in the ready availability of a trustworthy alternative. As he puts it, "As much transparency can be brought to that transaction, the better."

Issue Date: November 28 - December 4, 2003

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