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ASUCLA bears responsibility to disclose labor practices behind its clothing

ASUCLA sells UCLA merchandise, but it’s unclear how these products are created. If the union is engaging in unethical labor practices, this information should be public. (Daily Bruin file photo)

By Marcella Pensamiento

February 18, 2019 10:10 pm

We all have that UCLA souvenir we can’t get over: a free shirt from a basketball game, a cheesy “UCLA dad” shirt your dad won’t stop wearing, a lanyard for your keys. Even those without a great reservoir of school pride often own that blue-and-gold logo on something.

You can thank Associated Students UCLA for providing all that – even its potential unethical labor practices.

ASUCLA sells clothing for practically every purpose. The union, however, doesn’t publicly provide information regarding the ethics and sustainability of its clothing. And the garment production partners on the UCLA Store website, Russell Athletic, Wideworld Sportswear and Under Armour, provide sparse information on their website regarding the origins of the university gear.

Granting agency to UCLA Store customers is crucial: The university has had several issues regarding ethical sourcing in the past. In 2017, for example, the Daily Bruin reported that although UCLA attained fair-trade university status, the coffee it sells didn’t meet ethical production standards. The university has also partnered with Under Armour, which earned a C- rating for working conditions and other standards by corporate responsibility organization As You Sow.

Ethical fashion has a reputation of seeming unfeasible. From raising the minimum wage to giving employees the right to unionize, ethical labor decisions can easily more than double the average price of a UCLA shirt. But the road to sound labor practices begins with transparency and providing data on clothing factory conditions or worker rights.

ASUCLA must be transparent about how its clothing is created and open about any unethical labor practices it might entail. Neither the UCLA Store website nor cashier counters provide information about the origin or the operational details of the various articles of clothing with the Bruin logo. ASUCLA is a student-funded union that owes its students, a sizable amount of whom wish to know about ethical practices, information about where they get their BearWear from.

Across the country, a majority of universities do not rely on eco-friendly or ethical clothing production processes, and the struggle to achieve more ethical practices is prevalent. Ohio State and USC students were rattled in 2011 by their universities’ signing of apparel deals with companies allegedly using sweatshop labor.

The impetus is straightforward: A school’s brand cannot be emblematic of pride while maintaining an underlying tone of obscurity – especially one meant to hide unethical practices.

“I wasn’t even aware of (ethical labor issues) for universities, but the moral obligation of transparency definitely should not fall on the students,” said first-year business economics student Adam Kessler.

ASUCLA has financial resources, a platform and the ability to influence the school’s culture of conscious purchasing, and as with other employers, it has an obligation to let consumers know about what they’re consuming, not the other way around.

“I’m sure if a notice was put out telling me the establishment I was buying from was operating on unethical standards, I would be more inclined to look into (shopping sustainably),” said third-year psychobiology student JD Malana.

Malana added he thought having retailers like ASUCLA provide more information to consumers such as him would more directly affect their ethical shopping decisions than would any sort of cultural shift or student-run initiative.

“I think just the lack of information to begin with is a problem,” he said.

ASUCLA did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Unfortunately, this is not the university’s first run-in with ethical questioning. From 1999 to 2017, the school’s athletic garments were provided by Adidas. The German athletic company hosted workers in inhumane conditions, laid them off after strikes and even shut down a factory to flee legal allegations without paying $1.8 million to around 3,000 laborers.

But transparency is far from impossible for a school like UCLA.

Small clothing companies like Klow and Everlane have been able to demonstrate high ethical standards and transparency by producing fewer variations of styles through the seasons and focusing on making clothing that lasts, straying away from a fast fashion business model.

In comparison, ASUCLA has done little, even in terms of transparency. UCLA is the nation’s No. 1 public school, and its visibility to the public enables more resources for its endeavors.

Chris Tilly, a professor of public policy in the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, said an institution of UCLA’s size with financial resources and several connections to powerful organizations should have an easier time implementing more sustainable practices.

“In some ways we might expect a public university to live up to higher ethical standards because they are accountable not just to their board of trustees but to the people of California,” Tilly said.

While ASUCLA may not be able to make changes overnight, it can start by including the names of the factories that its third-party suppliers source from so students are kept in the know. Certainly, for all we know, ASUCLA might employ ethical labor practices, but students deserve to have the confidence that their money isn’t being funneled to perpetuating human rights abuses.

Moreover, it’s only to ASUCLA’s benefit to be transparent and ensure its image and intentions are clarified. Otherwise, anything goes in the name of producing a cheap, UCLA-embellished hoodie.

Regardless of our time period and financial abilities, ASUCLA has a responsibility to show Bruins where their representations of pride comes from – especially if it’s off the backs of exploited laborers.

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