April 26, 1999
Volume 51, No. 29
As sweatshop issue picks up steam on large campuses, Emory questions apparel vendors carefully
The issue that trickled into the nation's consciousness with Nike, Kathie Lee Gifford and Walmart has now filtered down to that most ubiquitous symbol of school pride: the university sweatshirt.
Lately, students at Duke, University of Michigan and Georgetown, among others, have begun protesting the conditions under which some licensed university apparel is made, creating a ripple in the media. But the issue has been at the forefront for the National Association of College Stores--the group whose 3,500-plus members typically sell most university apparel--for some time, said Susan Lester, director of Emory bookstores. And Emory, she noted, is particularly concerned that none of the garments it sells to students, employees or alumni have been made with sweatshop or child labor.
Lester sent a letter to the University's six clothing vendors, asking for full disclosure regarding their manufacturing processes. Their timely and, she believes, honest responses made it unnecessary at this time to join the 33 other universities who signed on to a plan last month with the Fair Labor Association, a consortium of human rights groups and manufacturers, to create a set of uniform guidelines for apparel-making. Still, Emory wanted to be proactive, Lester said. "We are particularly picky about who we buy our garments from. It was important that our vendors put in writing that the garments were made under fair conditions, and not by a 7-year-old."
Champion Products, Gear for Sports, Soffe, Ultrau, Cotton Exchange and Third Street all make apparel for Emory, Lester said. She has done business with some of these vendors for 20 years and knows well their manufacturing processes, she added. She warned that just because a manufacturer is located in the United States doesn't mean its garments are made here. Sometimes companies cut and sew here; other times apparel is assembled "offshore." "All Emory imprinting and sewing is done in the States," Lester said. "Most of the garments are made here as well." There are some exceptions, she said, such as Gear.
Unlike Division I schools such as Duke and Georgia Tech, where Lester worked previously, Emory sells only about $250,000 worth of merchandise annually, she conservatively estimated. She said she used to sell almost that amount on any given football Saturday at Tech. Typically, apparel sales add millions to the bottom line of schools with large athletic programs--Michigan made $5.7 million last year from clothing purchases, reported Time magazine.
Lester thinks larger schools can find themselves more at risk for buying merchandise made under unethical conditions. "The multitude of units and vendors makes it difficult," she said. "Ours is a small program that makes it easier to monitor." Time reported that an investigation found one of Michigan's vendors paid the Dominican Republic workers making its hats just 69¢ an hour. After a 51-hour sit-in by students in the president's office, administrators vowed to improve the working conditions of those who sew their collegiate apparel.
Some in higher education are worried that the sweatshop issue is being brewed on campuses by a labor movement eager to organize students and interest them in future union careers. The students dismiss these ideas, but they have received help and information from such labor titans as the AFL-CIO and UNITE--the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees.
What if Lester found that some of Emory's vendors had been less than honest with her about their manufacturing conditions? "We'd absolutely stop purchasing from them," she said, adamantly. "Emory would never support that."