The University of California, the Students and the Sweatshops

Shopping at UC Santa Barbara's bookstore has always seemed a straightforward student ritual. As one enters through the gleaming white walkway, exotic-looking women made of brown cardboard present a small shelf of sustainably-produced t-shirts. Between cues like this and the general vibe of the place, the average consumer would find it hard to imagine anything unethical about the apparel they pick up at the bookstore.

A growing movement on campus and across the country is making the argument that our shopping habits aren’t so harmless. Students, academics and consumers are mobilizing, targeting the places they work, study and shop. The movement has been spurred by now seemingly-routine disasters in garment factories mainly in Bangladesh, where in the decade prior to 2013, over 700 workers had died in factory fires and collapses. Then, in April of 2013, over 1,100 workers lost their lives after being coerced into entering the factory where they worked, only to have it collapse on them minutes later, Public Radio International reported. 

The International Business Times found that growth in apparel exports from Bangladesh now make it the second most important apparel supplier to the U.S., only behind China. FiveThirtyEight estimates Bangladeshi apparel exports to the U.S. to have exceeded $5 billion in the last year. Meanwhile, the collegiate apparel licensing business has swelled to over $4 billion according to Kristi Dosh of ESPN.


Among the bookstore's most popular items are “collegiate licensed apparel”—clothing that bears the UCSB name and logo, but are produced abroad under unknown conditions.

(photo by Brandon Yadegari)

Back at the University of California, the institution's stake in apparel manufacturing in Bangladesh was recently assessed by the UC’s Committee on the Code of Conduct for Trademark Licensees, which found that the UC’s bookstores generated $22,872,451 from licensees that source UC-logoed apparel in Bangladesh. With that knowledge, students and faculty are pushing bookstore managers and UC administrators to reevaluate procurement contracts.

Erin Purvis, a second year at UCSB and member of the campuses chapter of United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) has been involved with labor issues since arriving at UCSB. Purvis says that students have a "unique position" at the university as consumers, considering the size of the collegiate apparel market.

Rich Appelbaum is the MacArthur Chair in global and international studies and sociology at UCSB, and is a faculty member on the UC committee that reported on the UC’s stake in Bangladeshi-sourced apparel. An expert in labor studies, Appelbaum asserts that "there is the opportunity for the University to take meaningful steps to better-support the improvement of working conditions in Bangladesh."

Appelbaum described such a step as being requiring the UC’s licensees to sign on to the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, also called “the Accord.” In the wake of the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh, European brands sat down with labor rights groups and came up with the Accord as a response to the worsening apparel production situation in Bangladesh. “The Accord is the most important thing there is as far as improving working conditions in Bangladesh go,” said Appelbaum.

As the Accord emerged as a seemingly-viable option for ensuring accountability and improved working conditions in apparel manufacturing in Bangladesh, a second agreement emerged called the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, conveniently dubbed “the Alliance.”  While the names are similar, Appelbaum said “the origins of each agreement speak to their scope.” The New York Times made a detailed comparison of the Accord and the Alliance and revealed a more thorough inspection process guaranteed under the Accord, with legal liability placed on brand signatories—liability and responsibility that the Times noted to be absent from the Alliance. 

The UC Committee on the Code of Conduct for Trademark Licensees' April 2nd, 2014 report titled "Managing UC-Logoed Apparel Production in Bangladesh" recommended that the University of California require the Accord of its licensees (page 16).

In an article published by Appelbaum and Nelson Lichtenstein, a professor of history at UCSB, the two argue that the Accord brings many more stakeholders to the table, including workers, while the Alliance’s governance structure focuses on the power of the brands that sign the agreement. Matters of conflict under each agreement are handled accordingly; under the Accord, arbitration is an independent process that includes different stakeholders, while arbitration is a process handled exclusively by the brands under the Alliance.

On the basis of extensive scholarly work that was being published and under pressure from USAS chapters across the country, universities began to require their licensees to sign on to the Accord. The rationale behind the requirements was that eventually, one-by-one, every collegiate apparel licensee with a slice of the $4 billion pie would bow to the threat of losing lucrative licensing contracts with universities and sign on to the Accord.

In the spirit of such findings, the UC Committee on the Code of Conduct for Trademark Licensees made the unanimous recommendation to the president of the UC, Janet Napolitano, that all brands maintaining licensing deals with the UC and that source apparel in Bangladesh must sign on to the Accord. A few months later, however, President Napolitano's office countered with a policy that would require that brands sign on to either the Accord or the Alliance.

The notice issued on November 17th, 2014 by the UC Office of the President (left), which stipulates that trademark licensees could sign on to either the Accord or the Alliance, included an attachment (right) where licensees would indicate their affiliation with either or.

“The Alliance did its homework as far as getting its political backing,” said Appelbaum. “It’s clear that Napolitano overruled the committee because Ellen Tauscher, the executive director of the Alliance, got to her first—[Napolitano] was pressured by the head of the Alliance to take the Alliance.”

Erin Purvis saw the move as disregarding the will of students, who she argues had made it clear  where student support was on the pending decision. Purvis says that USAS had been pressing both the UC committee and the president, but in the end, Napolitano chose to side with the outside interests. Appelbaum said “I have no illusion that Napolitano will change her mind on this,” mainly because of the political pressure being exerted by supporters of the industry-friendly Alliance, he explained.

But Appelbaum and Purvis believe that the autonomy offered to UCSB as its own institution situated within the greater UC should allow students, faculty and administrators to weigh in on a more stringent requirement that UCSB itself could set for its licensees. “Each campus coming up with its own solution to join the Accord could be a way to run around this,” said Appelbaum. A solution of this sort could look like a requirement that brands sold in UCSB’s bookstore sign on to the Accord, guaranteeing safer working conditions for workers making clothes that UCSB students wear.


Erin Purvis, a student organizer working with United Students Against Sweatshops, stands along one of UCSB's main thoroughfares, ready to educate students about apparel available for purchase at the campus bookstore.

(photo by Brandon Yadegari)

Appelbaum, along with Purvis and other student activists are optimistic about a change in tactics, but acknowledge similar and consistent challenges. While Appelbaum explained the need for greater student input on UC-wide policy, citing a “shortage of student representation on the UC Committee on the Code of Conduct for Trademark Licensees,” Purvis noted that students affiliated with the anti-sweatshop movement have been shut out of joining the committee, but that further steps could be made to work together in the future. 

But the lack of student involvement in labor issues isn’t purely structural. “Students and consumers in general need to be more educated about these issues because big, important decisions are being made all around them every day,” said Purvis. The limitations of an anti-sweatshop movement without a supportive and educated base become apparent, but Purvis maintains that translating social justice concepts into actionable steps is a long process for anyone.

Bryoni Lawrence, a fifth year economics and accounting student, sees these limitations when students are unaware of particular issues. “Consumers don’t seem to consider their individual impact elsewhere, so I don’t think most of us are aware of where our clothes come from,” said Lawrence, “but many people do educate themselves and are more intentional with the way they shop and dress, whether it’s particular to style or a socially conscious reflection.” Lawrence said the missing piece for most is education, but acknowledged that consumers aren’t the only ones with responsibilities. “I’m personally not aware of any fair-labor alternatives, aside from a section that’s marketed more towards women,” she said. “I think the bookstore should be making it more obvious which items are be produced where, and then the consumer then can make their own choice.”


United StudentsAgainst Sweatshops organizers meet in a campus conference room, where they plan a response to President Napolitano's policy decision to require either the Accord or the Alliance.

(photo by Brandon Yadegari)

As the stakeholders at UCSB consider the Accord and its implications, the university is just one of hundreds that will eventually consider such measures. Successful activist pushes past and present can shed light on this particular movement. In the 1990s, the anti-sweatshop movement was in full-swing on college campuses, coming to a head in the 1999 Seattle World Trade Organization protests. The movement was mobilized and met some success, as researchers Tim Bartley and Curtis Child found in their study which covered the period surrounding the anti-sweatshop movement. According to the researchers, tactics dubbed “naming and shaming” and even outright boycott sought to bring attention to the plight of sweatshop workers around the world. Companies in their crosshairs made everything from apparel to footwear and other small consumer goods, and many took hits to their reputation and bottom line when they were “called out” for their use of extreme sweatshop labor practices. Most lasting from this early skirmish between student activists and apparel makers was the role the campaign played in sparking the creation of independent monitoring organizations like the Fair Labor Association and the Workers Rights Consortium, both of which play integral roles in industry monitoring and worker advocacy to this day.

The National Retail Federation (NRF) recently released its annual numbers on holiday shopping and found that sales in the first week of shopping for the season had fallen 11% from last year. Jeff Sommer of The New York Times explored the possibility of the decline being a direct result of the Black Friday Boycott and continuing protests surrounding the killing of Mike Brown and Eric Garner. Sommer suggests that the magnitude of mobilization behind these movements was enough to cause the decline in holiday spending.

The data has its limitations, in both the NRF’s report and others', but behind each of these trends there are social pressures, and vice versa. Behind each movement, there are activists and organizers with deep convictions, aiming to turn the tide. Though the question remains: when a student walks through UCSB's pristine bookstore, will campus anti-sweatshop activists be there to tell the full, colored story behind the clothes?

United Students Against Sweatshops activists Ria Sager (left) and Dana Patterson (right) are one of dozens of students who staged a die-in in front of UCSB's University Center, obstructing traffic in and out of the university bookstore as a response to policy decisions made by UC President Janet Napolitano's office. (photo by Brandon Yadegari)