Oberlin Should Seek Out Local Apparel Suppliers

Jackie Brant, Columnist

As the Review reported last week, an investigation by the Worker Rights Consortium released last December revealed that Nike had been using a sweatshop as a supplier for its collegiate clothing, violating its anti-sweatshop agreement with the College. As a college dedicated to social justice, Oberlin has a Sweatshop-Free Apparel Code of Purchasing, meaning that the College refuses to buy from businesses that use sweatshops in their production process. Sweatshops are wildly unjust to workers, as they may force employees to work unreasonable hours in unfit conditions, pay less than minimum wage with no benefits and may use child labor.

Unfortunately, most major sports apparel brands have been tainted by labor malpractices. In fact, Oberlin switched its primary supplier from Adidas to Nike in 2012 because of Adidas’ labor practices. While the College should clearly denounce Nike’s infraction, these situations are inevitable as long as the College continues to buy from large corporations with factories abroad. Instead, Oberlin should look into switching its apparel providers to smaller, local businesses that are far less likely to engage in unethical labor practices.

The WRC report found Hansae Vietnam Co., a major factory supplier of Nike’s collegiate apparel, violated numerous international labor codes, including abusive and unsafe management practices such as pressure on workers to meet absurd quotas, physical abuse of workers by managers, not allowing workers to take bathroom breaks, forced and excessive overtime, discriminatory dismissal of pregnant employees, denial of sick leave, management domination of the factory’s labor union and other wage and hour violations. These violations are not only grossly unjust and dehumanizing but also in direct violation with DSP and USAS requirements.

Though Nike is now working with the factory to correct these injustices, this single incident has brought to light a deeper problem. Even after this malpractice was exposed, Nike still refuses to allow the WRC to inspect the factories that supply its collegiate apparel. Nike’s Chief Sustainability Officer Hannah Jones told The Huffington Post that the company cannot give an outside group permission to inspect their supplier’s factory, and that it “wouldn’t normally assist an outside group like the WRC.” This refusal will prevent the WRC from being able “to fully perform its independent monitoring work on behalf of affiliate universities and colleges,” according to the WRC report on Hansae Vietnam Co.

Though the breaches in the Nike-Oberlin agreement are very serious, the ethical issues have much more widespread consequences than just a breach of contract. Colleges that continue to use brands like Nike that benefit from exploitation and mistreatment of employees enable this practice in the long run. Collegiate licensing is a $4.6-billion industry, according to estimates by ESPN, meaning that colleges have significant power in the relationship between the college and the brand that provides the apparel. If colleges begin to truly stand up to these corporations, they will be forced to abandon these unjust tactics.

Oberlin should be at the forefront of this fight to put an end to the use of sweatshops. Ideally, Oberlin would immediately terminate its contract with Nike unless the company allows the WRC full access to its suppliers and ends all unethical labor practices. Unfortunately, according to Senior Associate Athletic Director Creg Jantz, Nike’s contract with Oberlin cannot be terminated before Oct. 31, 2019. In the meantime, the College should look into alternative apparel providers.

Most apparel corporations have been investigated and found to be using sweatshop supplies at some point, including Nike, Adidas, Under Armour and Jansport, according to student Purchasing Committee member Yijia Gao. Because of this seemingly repetitive issue with large corporations, Oberlin should look toward local businesses as providers. Currently, some of Oberlin’s apparel is supplied by small, local businesses. However, according to Politics and East Asian Studies Professor Marc Blecher, who also sits on Oberlin’s Purchasing Committee, the College has not found a way to have all of its apparel supplied by small, local businesses at this point. Looking toward these types of businesses rather than large corporations could be a good way to ensure that Oberlin abstains from supporting large corporations that thrive on the exploitation of workers.

If Oberlin could find a way to make this work by 2019, it would be beneficial to both local businesses and to the anti-sweatshop movement as a whole. If not, Oberlin should drop Nike as a brand and look elsewhere unless the company demonstrates consistent dedication to fixing the unethical practices of its suppliers.