Universities need to harness their power as corporate citizens in a buyer’s market to enforce regulation of ethical production and furnish consumer choice, said Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium at “The University as Corporate Citizen.”
Nova, who spoke Thursday during “Why should Colleges and Universities Care About Corporate Citizenship?” – one of several panels at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center’s event – said lack of oversight is directly responsible for disasters like the 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse that killed more than 1,000 workers in Bangladesh. Even when retailers do attempt to regulate production, factories often cannot afford to increase safety standards for their workers because of the demand for low-cost goods.
“If the factory isn’t being paid enough money to actually afford the cost of installing a new fire exit system, then its not going to do so,” Nova said. “If we really want factories to protect workers we need to make sure they get paid a price high enough to do this.”
The use of licensing agreements to implement regulation of working conditions in apparel factories originated in universities.
“Because of the concerns of students, the administrators at the institutions decided they needed to adopt labor standards,” Nova said. “It’s a critical step, and universities were the pioneers in creating enforceable and binding labor agreements.”
When retailers, including university brands, make a commitment to ethical production, consumers are more than willing to foot the bill, said moderator Shareen Hertel, associate professor of human rights and political science at UConn.
“We found that even in the depth of the recession over half of consumers in the nation would consume ethically, the bottle neck for them was finding the products,” Hertel said of her research on the subject.
Unfortunately, Nova said, consumers are often unaware of where their purchases come from because companies currently have little motivation to tell them: even labeling one product “responsibly made” carries with it the implication that others are not.
“One can begin to presume that that is how retailer want it, that they’re afraid of the decisions that consumers might make,” Nova said. “Until people are offered those choices in a meaningful way it’s hard to tell whether that latent desire would actually translate into decision making broadly enough to have a real impact.”
Heeral Coleman, director of Stakeholder Services and Communications for the Fair Labor Association, said universities need to established labor standards and the expectation of transparency in their contracts with manufacturers.
“This is when leverage is greatest, before the contract is signed,” Coleman said. “What’s important is that university engagement is ongoing rather than sporadic.”
Panelist Tim Dzurilla, a political science graduate student, said the unionization of UConn graduate workers demonstrated that improving conditions for workers increases the quality of output as well.
“We are now attracting a higher quality of research because of our competitive benefits along with our worker’s right at this university,” Dzurilla said.
Kyle Muncy, an assistant director of athletics at UConn, said he has noticed an increased regard for the importance of creating an ethical supply chain for the university from students and the administration over the past four years. He said over that time his office, licensing and branding, has been working to reduce the number of companies the university buys from so they can be more easily regulated.
“We have nearly 200 licensed clubs and group on campus and they are all buying shirts and trinkets,” Muncy said during a question-and-answer session. “We’re working hard to come up with a responsible way to do it, but as always it’s hard with a university this size.”
Coleman said showing administrators that students care about the destructive impact of unregulated manufacturing on places like Bangladesh is key to kickstarting change.
“Universities need to look beyond environmental issues and their carbon footprint to the social footprint of university products,” she said. “Students like yourself care about these issues and play an important role in spotlighting them for the university.”
“The University as Corporate Citizen” was sponsored by the Connecticut Campus Compact, the Human Rights Institute Program on Economic and Social Rights, the Eversource Energy Chair in Business Ethics and the President’s Committee on Corporate Social Responsibility.
Kimberly Armstrong is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.