With its athletic and academic programs garnering national acclaim, the University of Connecticut boasts far-reaching influence which in turn, solicits closer scrutiny by the greater public. When the school’s licensed apparel came under fire in 2005 for unethical sourcing, members of the community were called upon to serve on a task force for sweatshirt labor, eventually giving rise to the current President’s Committee on Corporate Social Responsibility (PCCSR). With pressure from UConn’s heavily active Human Rights Institute and the collegiate community, the university seeks to remain socially responsible in its business endeavors with policies such as the Vendor Code of Conduct and continuous collaboration with peer institutes and organizations. On Nov. 20, the school’s Business and Human Rights Initiative hosted a roundtable on collegiate sourcing addressing those concerns in the current economic climate and in the face of COVID-19, featuring representatives from apparel manufacturers and those involved in corporate social responsibility in college spaces and beyond.
“We’re living in an era of this kind of vicious Russian nesting doll of crises,” Glenn Mitoma, director of Dodd Human Rights Impact, said, drawing attention to the concerns toward the pandemic, racial inequality, political environment and climate running parallel to one another. “Interconnection, interdependence, and indivisible human rights are all really at the forefront of each and every one of these choices…what I learned in this kind of framework is a strategy for how universities and companies can respond.”
Students were interested to know more about current impacts as well as how to be more engaged in the conversation on campus.
“COVID poses challenges not only in relation to worker health and safety, but also supply chain bottlenecks,” Kyle Muncy, UConn’s director of partnerships and business development, said. For years, he has been in charge of the university’s strategic partnerships and licensing program. “There are other challenges in sustainability, both social and environmental [that] come apparent amidst the pandemic.”
In an increasingly globalized economy, consumers seek to be socially aware and ethical when making purchases, and Muncy draws attention to corporations that have or have not been committed to paying in full for orders completed and in production amidst the pandemic. Notable brands such as Nike, H&M and Target are included in the former category, while Kohl’s, Urban Outfitters and TJX land in the latter. With revenue from royalties dropping in the 45% range, budget challenges include those relative to factory work around the world and workers in those factories.
“…layoffs and furloughs are happening disproportionately to social responsibility and licensing teams within those companies,” Muncy, who also serves as chair of the PCCSR, said. “It is an incredible challenge for licensed partners to convince companies that the social responsibility and licensing teams really are fundamental to the success and, frankly, to the trust level that those of us have with those particular companies.”
Muncy described UConn’s own approach in this matter as providing a lower royalty rate to any company that is an accredited participating company with the Fair Labor Association (FLA). He also mentioned the university’s work with Alta Gracia for socially conscious apparel.
“How can these partnerships benefit the student body, not just today’s student body…[but also those] going to be impacted by decisions that we’re making in the next 12 to 18 months?” Muncy mentioned for students to express what they would want UConn to do, not necessarily what they don’t want the university to not do.
Panelist Kelsey Keene serves as director of licensing and corporate social responsibility at Colosseum Athletics, the fourth largest collegiate apparel company in the country with over 500 college licenses, and she touched upon the increased risk of child labor in supply chains.
“The international labor organization and UNICEF estimated 463 million kids weren’t able to access remote learning around the world when their schools closed and that by the end of 2020, 24 million kids will drop out of school…and unfortunately enter the labor force again,” Keene said, discussing research conducted by the Center for Child Rights and Corporate Social Responsibility (CCR CSR). They cited financial pressure, tendency to be put in hazardous work, lack of childcare care and labor shortages as reasons for the increased risk.
Colosseum seeks to implement worker welfare projects in its supply chain in its factories in China, Vietnam and the United States to create a more conducive environment for workers, their families and their communities. Previous programs have focused on health education or financial empowerment, but Keene cites their support of migrant working parents in China as the most impactful program they’ve implemented over the years.
“I believe that Colosseum does really well with society engagement…it kind of goes above and beyond maybe just regular code of conduct compliance,” Keene said. “The project focuses on remote parenting guidance and establishing a connection and communication between these families.”
Nathan Fleisig, director of corporate social responsibility of Outerstuff, provided a manufacturer’s perspective of how the pandemic has affected their supply chain and production. They are a privately youth licensed sports apparel manufacturer without the resources of any international offices or owning any manufacturing supply chain facilities, in comparison to some of its larger competitors.
“We incorporate best practices by participating in better buying where our supply chain provides feedback on our buying practices and the effects we have on them,” Fleisig, who is an active member of the Fair Labor Association (FLA) Business Caucus, said, and described Outerstuff’s response towards Covid-19’s impact on their supply chain. “We defined our strategic long-term suppliers and provided creative payments terms as suppliers to hold goods for future shipments rather than fully cancelling, provide partial and extended payments, collaborated with retailers to renegotiate more favorable terms, used tools provided by AAFA, FLA and Licensors to work with our supply chain, and request continuous feedback from suppliers on their actions plans for health and safety measures.”
The roundtable also benefited from the outlook of a peer institution, provided by Liz Kennedy, director of ethical labor and sustainability of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). During the roundtable, she shared how UCLA had recently won an innovation award with the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability and seeks to achieve platinum status like UConn. Kennedy similarly touched upon the pandemic’s effects on licensee and retailer buying practices, while also mentioning the challenge of maintaining worker health and safety and retrenchment for businesses.
“I think we have…a very unique role in one sense because we also operate retailers as well as licensing programs,” Kennedy said. She remarked on the importance of “looking for the helpers” in a crisis, quoting Fred Rogers and discussed the University of California system’s use of the EcoVadis Sustainability Assessment that looks at a scorecard of sustainable criteria for their licensees. “I would encourage every student to articulate your views…ask questions if you have questions about products, about what companies and licensing programs and retailers are doing…every question [we] ask is a market driver of what is important to us.”
The roundtable was initially conceived by UConn human rights and political science professor Shareen Hertel for her comparative perspectives on human rights class, having collaborated with the panelists previously. When the Dodd Human Rights Impact program caught wind of the event, the panel was opened to the community with Hertel moderating.
“All of these peoples’ experiences [are] an extraordinary opportunity for us to train ourselves…as consumers, every single one of you is going to have infinitely more opportunities to consume in your lives than you will to vote,” Hertel said, echoing Mitoma’s hope for attendees to take the larger principles of human rights discussed and learn how to incorporate them practically. She served on the president’s initial task force on sweatshops and has been a member of the PCCSR since its inception.
“I thought it was super interesting and not like anything I’d been to before and probably not something I would have heard about if I wasn’t in HRTS 3212,” Lisette Donewald, a fifth-semester student studying political science, human rights and history, said. “My expectations were that it would talk more about the effects on actual people but I was still intrigued to learn about UConn’s CSR practices in comparison to UCLA’s.”