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United Progressive Alumni : UPA Features : Do You Know Where That Cap Was Made?


Do You Know Where That Cap Was Made?

by Derek Dorn '98, Cornell

Launched at Brown, Cornell, Duke, Georgetown, Harvard, and Wesleyan Universities in August 1997, the Sweat-Free Campus Campaign focuses on the university's relationship with the apparel industry. At $2.4 billion a year, the college and university segment of the apparel industry is significant, and demands careful scrutiny - for this is a trade notorious for its poor labor conditions and flagrant abuse of worker's and human rights. Universities have an opportunity and a vital responsibility to help end these abuses at home and around the world.

What's At Stake

The goal of the Sweat-Free Campus campaigns on individual campuses (such as Cornell) is to have schools adopt Codes of Conduct, which would require any associated apparel company to abide by certain standards in order to receive the university's license. Some of these requirements include:

To be effective, these codes of conduct should include a provision requiring public disclosure of the names and locations of these factories. Such provisions would enable independent groups to inspect the factories and verify compliance with the code.

Some of the main companies involved in this part of the apparel industry are household names (eg. Nike, Champion, Russell Athletic, and Aramark), while others are more obscure (eg. CS Crable, David Peyser, Nutmeg and Jostens). But all of them are vulnerable to pressure from colleges and universities.

The Duty of "Educated Men and Women"

Colleges and universities possess a cultural and moral force as institutions of higher learning. The Sweat-Free Campus Campaign aims to use this force as well as the economic influence of universities as leverage in the fight to end sweatshop abuses. By pressuring university administrators to demand that apparel contractors run sweatshop-free operations, we can have a considerable effect on abusive companies, and the industry as a whole. For unlike other anti-sweatshop campaigns wherein large companies violating labor laws are not easily affected by individual consumers, these companies rely on large buyers like colleges and universities not only for their large market value, but also for the prestige and publicity gained from the school's name.

Thus we can help end labor abuses, and the staining of our school's good name. We can force apparel companies to improve conditions in their factories and contracted shops, and move work into better and cleaner facilities, if we demand that our universities take a stand against sweatshops!

The Fight at Big Red

Cornell is considered a medium sized player in the licensing industry. Unlike athletic powerhouse schools, Cornell apparel is generally popular only with individuals affiliated with the university. Nevertheless, Cornell has been complicit in a system of sweatshop abuses, and profits through royalties on clothing sold with Cornell's name.

The process by which Cornell-branded clothing is produced is fairly complex - Cornell uses a licensing agent, the Collegiate Licensing Company (CLC). CLC is a management company hired by schools to handle the day-to-day operation of their licensing programs. Essentially, they serve as a middleman for universities and manufacturers. They are the largest such licensing agent, with over 160 clients. CLC receives a percentage of each school's royalties for handling the trademark.

Since August 1997, students have called on Cornell to end this complicity in the sweatshop system, starting with a public awareness campaign to inform the campus that Cornell clothing is manufactured under sweatshop conditions. Among other reactions, the Student Assembly passed a resolution condemning the university's involvement in the sweatshop system.

After bringing the situation to light, Cornell administrators agreed to work with the leaders of Students Against Sweatshops (SAS) and the Cornell Organization for Labor Action (COLA). Both students and administrators recognized that as a relatively small player in the industry, Cornell couldn't force change by itself. So students called on the University to use its influence as a licensor of the Collegiate Licensing Company to demand a code of conduct for all CLC licensors. The university's licensing director was appointed a member of CLC's Code of Conduct Task Force, comprised of representatives from 14 schools.

Half a Victory - But Not Enough

Meanwhile, students continued to publicize the sweatshop abuses under which Cornell clothing is manufactured, with worker tours, vigils, and demonstrations. In April 1998, the university announced that it would require companies manufacturing Cornell products to follow a Code of Conduct. However, CLC's proposed code was weak and did not enumerate several clauses critical to the effectiveness of such codes, including full disclosure of factory locations.

SAS and COLA then demanded that Cornell refrain from signing any code of conduct that does not provide for complete disclosure of factory locations (which allows human rights observers to monitor conditions, beyond self-regulation by the companies) and a living wage for workers. They continued their campaign of education, agitation, and action. The United Progressive Alumni joined the cause, and collected 100 alumni signatures on a letter supporting student demands. On March 4, 1999, the administration announced that it would require any Code of Conduct to include effective clauses on compliance and disclosure.

In April 1999, the University announced that, along with two dozen other schools, it would join the Apparel Industry Partnership (AIP). The AIP was established by Liz Claiborne, Nike, and other giants in the apparel industry in 1997. Critics contend that the partnership is merely corporate window dressing, as AIP's standards don't include full public disclosure of factory locations or any movement toward paying workers a living wage. For these and other reasons, unions and religious groups that were initially involved in shaping the AIP withdrew. It is obvious that companies like Liz Claiborne and Nike see university involvement as a way to boost AIP's credibility. But Cornell and several other universities have promised to live up to their commitment to full disclosure. In a letter sent to the CLC and AIP, Rawlings explained the university's reservations regarding the AIP.

However, the battle is not over. The administration has still not committed to a living wage requirement, which would ensure that workers manufacturing clothing at with the University's name are paid a wage to support a basic standard of living.

For updated news, please visit www.asm.wisc.edu/usas/ the webpage of the United Students Against Sweatshops.

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-- ab zdec, April 20, 2004
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