By Kelly Sullivan/ The AS Review
Many Western students own at least one article of clothing from the bookstore. Cozy as they may be, the sweatshirts, sweatpants and t-shirts sporting the famous WWU triad have an unfortunate story to tell.
According to Mark Iozzi, the recently elected AS President, and current president of Western’s chapter of the national organization United Students Against Sweatshops, the clothing in Western’s bookstore was manufactured in sweatshops.
“Based on all I know about the garment industry, almost all of the clothes in the bookstore had to have come from sweatshops. It’s how clothes are made,” he said. “There is no incentive not to do it.”
This lacking incentive is the target of a new campaign being launched here at Western, as well as on numerous campuses across the United States. The New Sweat Free Campus Campaign aims to push Universities and Colleges to agree to a regulatory program called the Designated Suppliers Program. Under this program, a campus administration agrees to buy garments produced only in factories that respect worker’s rights.
Last January, USAS wrote a proposal and took it to an organization called the Workers Rights Consortium, a student created and partially student run organization working towards workplace justice and workers rights.
The proposal asked the WRC to create list of approved factories that uphold workers rights, and to act as a regulatory body, checking these factories and responding to any complaints or potential deviations from their commitment to workers rights. The only way for a factory to make it on this list is if the workers in the factory themselves decide to be on it.
With this list intact, USAS created The New Sweat Free Campus Campaign, and is currently working to press campuses to buy just from these suppliers.
This past year, Western agreed to be affiliated with this list. This affiliation lets Western know what percentage of the garments they purchase come from sweatshops and what percentage comes from the factories designated on the list.
According to Iozzi, the next and most crucial step is getting the administration to agree to the entire program.
“With WRC affiliation, we have a code of conduct that says we will live up to these expectations, but no one follows it,” he said.
“(Subscribing to the Designated Suppliers Program) isn’t asking Western to do anything more than they already want to do. It’s just a way of holding ourselves accountable to standards we’ve already set.”
“We are asking schools to agree to purchase only source clothing from these factories (on the WRC list). It creates a demand for good working conditions,” he said.
In other words, the aforementioned incentive has been established. If a factory owner neglects workers rights, they can no longer make garments that will be sold as college apparel. By perpetrating a sweatshop workplace, they lose business. The campaign creates market incentive for factory owners and clothing companies to respect workers rights.
“This is a big buzz around the nation,” said Iozzi. “There are campaigns for this program at about 150 campuses.”
Like any social movement, mass support is what pushes the scales from a trying effort to serious change.
“It is crucial to get this program to a critical mass where it can be adopted on a large scale,” he said. Western may not be a very big campus, but it will help to push those scales in favor of mass campus compliance.
The issue of sweatshop labor is vast and complex.
“This isn’t a complete fix,” said Iozzi. “It’s a realistic solution for part of the problem. But it will make a huge difference for the lives of thousands of workers.” Although this step may seem small, it is a move in the right direction.
“College clothing is a major industry,” said Iozzi, who commented that it pulls in 3-4 billion dollars a year, or roughly 1% of total clothing industry profit. “A lot of factories subsist on it,” he said.
“We are asking Western’s administration to adopt this proposal,” said Iozzi. “Western will hopefully consider it over the summer. We hope they will adopt it next year.”
How can you help? “Students can join [USAS],” Iozzi said. “We need a strong membership base. It has to be a campus wide effort.”
Although the topic of sweatshops is rather depressing, Iozzi commented that the USAS is no glum organization. “The USAS as a whole is a lot of fun, particularly if you like to travel,” he said, noting that the organization pays travel expenses for members. “Its a chance to learn about the [garment] industry, have an opportunity to travel, and to educate yourself without spending money.”
This summer, give your consumer dollar some serious thought, and come back in the fall ready to take direct action about a more ethical approach to college apparel.
“We need to organize a base of students who will voice strong student support for Western to take a stand against using sweatshops,” said Iozzi.
Every single student plays an important role in building that support.
For more information on the New Sweat Free Campus Campaign, USAS, or workers rights in general, visit www.studentsagainstsweatshops.org.