Everyone wants to be able to buy quality goods at low prices. One item in most peoples’ budget that has fallen in price over the past several decades is clothing. One reason for this is the outsourcing of clothing manufacturing to lower-cost countries. While low prices are important, American consumers still want to know that their clothes are produced in factories with safe and fair working conditions.
Here at UW-Madison, we sell a lot of clothes and other items that promote the UW brand. The university has contracts allowing 447 companies to make products bearing the university’s name or logos. Our product sales bring in $3.3 million annually to the university, which puts us among the top 20 colleges and universities in product revenue generation. These proceeds go toward financial aid for scholarships and to the Athletic Department. While some of these items are U.S.-made, many items – particularly clothing – are made in other countries. (In fact, it’s difficult to find a U.S.-made T-shirt anywhere these days.)
So, UW is connected to the manufacturing practices of multinational companies sourcing in far away countries such as Bangladesh, Honduras or Indonesia. And we care about how these goods get made.
To sell a hat, sweatshirt, jersey or mug bearing the likeness of Bucky Badger, a Motion W or University of Wisconsin logo, we require our licensees to agree to a code of conduct which is maintained by the Collegiate Licensing Company and monitored by an outside group, the Workers’ Rights Consortium.
The code addresses workers’ wages, working hours, overtime compensation, child labor, forced labor, health and safety, nondiscrimination, harassment or abuse, women’s rights, freedom of association, and full public disclosure of factory locations.
These protections are important, because poor working conditions and workers’ abuses can and do occur. You may have heard of the horrifying Rana Plaza building collapse, which took the lives of more than 1,100 Bangladeshi garment workers last April.
That factory was not involved in the production of UW licensed goods, but Bangladesh is the world’s second largest apparel provider, after China, and we do have 21 licensees who produce clothing in Bangladesh.
Because there have been a number of serious problems in Bangladesh, special efforts are currently underway to ensure that our licensees who source goods from that country take extra steps to ensure their factories are safe for workers.
Our Labor Codes Licensing Compliance Committee (LCLCC) has called for UW to mandate that our licensees sign onto a pact called the Accord on Fire and Building Safety. A similar effort, the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety has also been established by a group of manufacturers who do business in Bangladesh. Of the 21 UW licensees active in the country, seven of these have already signed the Accord, and another one has signed the Alliance.
At the moment, I am pleased to see both efforts taking root and plan to give both programs the benefit of time and experience to establish their credibility. Given that both initiatives are new and neither have any track record, this will also give us the opportunity to see if one program is more effective than the other. In fact, the two programs are working cooperatively on the ground on issues like common safety standards and factory inspections.
I have responded to the LCLCC, seeking additional information about the two programs and how they differ. When we have a good idea about the viability and effectiveness of the programs, we will then decide whether the University of Wisconsin will require its licensees to join the Accord or sign on either the Accord or the Alliance. As we continue to evaluate the effectiveness of these efforts, I will report back on these issues to our governance groups.
These issues related to licensing and corporate responsibility can be complex. It’s not always obvious which actions by UW will be most effective in incentivizing appropriate behavior by companies thousands of miles away. Well-meaning people sometimes disagree, and anyone who’s been on campus in recent decades knows that there have occasionally been differences of opinion between students groups and Bascom Hall about the best approaches to worker-related issues.
But I want you to know that UW has long been serious about its commitment to make sure that our licensed products are produced in safe and equitable work environments. In the recent past, students worked in cooperation with faculty and staff, along with past Chancellors Ward, Wiley and Martin, to call attention to and remediate situations involving international brands such as Nike, adidas, Russell and New Era, among others.
I am committed to ongoing attention and dialogue over these issues. We are constantly looking to educate our licensees and improve our code, to the benefit of workers and companies.
So, the next time you pull on your UW sweatshirt, or lift your coffee mug, you should know that we pay attention to the people who make our products.