Two students browse through racks of clothing in the NMU Bookstore, pawing brightly colored spring T-shirts that sport the NMU logo. While many students are aware of the price tag, most don’t look beyond the labels.
Many of NMU’s clothing items carry the label JanSport, a subsidiary of the corporation VF, the world’s largest publicly owned fashion apparel manufacturer. VF also owns brands such as Wrangler, Lee, National Football League, National Basketball Association, National Hockey League and NASCAR.
VF’s foreign manufacturing conditions have been under scrutiny for practices that include the blacklisting of employees and the refusal to provide compensation to workers for overtime.
But it remains unclear whether or not NMU apparel is made in factories that mistreat workers.
“I haven’t done any investigation — I rely on the (Fair Labor Association) FLA,” said Mike Kuzak, manager of the NMU bookstore. “And of course the (JanSport) rep isn’t going to tell us.”
The FLA provides an initial code of conduct for the participating companies and also allows the companies to be involved in producing reports which eventually return to the buyers of the product. Companies belonging to the FLA also pay for their membership based on the company’s annual income.
Nationwide, universities from Harvard to the University of Michigan have received pressure from their student bodies to toughen their university’s code of conduct on the production of university apparel.
“I would expect the FLA to come under scrutiny because the industry (JanSport and others) should not be involved in policing itself,” Kuzak said in an e-mail interview.
Yet, the bookstore does not have access to information that would indicate the truth about product history.
“Of course a sweatshop is something we don’t support,” Kuzak said. “If any of our vendors are buying from sweatshops, we don’t support that. But how do we monitor that?”
Many universities are joining the World Rights Commission, a non-profit organization that conducts research and reports on companies selling goods to the college market.
The WRC has published investigations about VF as recently as December 2006 that show a neglect of human rights in factories located in El Salvador.
Earlier this month, 12 University of Michigan students were arrested for refusing to leave President Mary Sue Coleman’s office while holding a sit-in protesting against the university’s complacency regarding the standards of U of M apparel production.
U of M is currently a member of WRC.
It would be a step forward if Northern took similar actions, said Megan Phillips, a senior who will travel to Ecuador in the fall to do ecological preservation and environmental education. “I would purchase something at full price and wear it with pride it I knew it was from clean practices,” Phillips said
The WRC would provide that kind of information and assurance for students.
“Knowledge is critical to monitoring. If the public can’t know where goods are being produced, there is no way to enforce this code,” said Nancy Steffan, assistant director of WRC.
Universities help create their own code of conduct to which manufacturers must adhere in order to sell products on campus.
Some Northern students are concerned with the lack of knowledge about the apparel sold on campus.
“We need to be aware that [workers] aren’t aware that they have rights. They don’t know that there is a way out. It’s the responsibility of all of us to make them aware of this,” said senior Shawn Brown, who will begin medical school this June and who plans to practice medicine in a Third World country following her residency.
“Awareness is huge,” Brown said, “I think that it’s important to have a policy but more important to address the issues behind the labor. If we don’t address what’s behind the situation then we’re not going to address the change. If looking at NMU apparel is a way to focus on that issue, then that’s going to be the first step.”
NMU Vice President and Academic Provost Fred Joyal said that if there is concrete evidence found that products are being manufactured by exploiting workers, the President’s Council would look into the matter.
The NMU Bookstore may be fading out JanSport apparel due to conflicts with the new JanSport representative, but the bookstore will continue to carry the line of JanSport book bags. This decision has nothing to do with the recent findings about the VF corporation.
“Universities have been leaders in improving conditions for workers by adopting codes of conduct and supporting independent companies,” Steffan of WRC said. “Universities have been setting the standard.”