Queen’s clothing: ambiguously ethical

Jennifer Valberg, Comm ’05, is co-founder of Ghettotees, a t-shirt company she started to combat what she sees as an unethical campus clothing industry.
Jennifer Valberg, Comm ’05, is co-founder of Ghettotees, a t-shirt company she started to combat what she sees as an unethical campus clothing industry.
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The next time you set foot on Queen’s campus, try this: count the number of seconds it takes before you spy someone sporting Queen’s clothing. Getting past the count of seven can be a major feat. Whether it’s a GPA, a T-shirt or “Queen’s” stretched across someone’s sweatpanted ass, it’s pretty evident University apparel is a big industry. Remarkably, licensed clothing makes up an average of five per cent of total sales at most Canadian universities’ campus bookstores, but at Queen’s, that figure is 12 per cent, according to the Campus Bookstore.

But have you ever checked the tag on that Queen’s shirt lurking in your drawer?

There are a variety of producers of Queen’s-related clothing in Kingston, and the number continues to grow. The most recent newcomer to the market is Ghettotees.

Jennifer Valberg, Comm ’05, and her friend, graphic designer Jeremy Watts, have gone into business selling a line of shirts with designs showcasing the quirks of Ghetto and campus life.

According to Valberg, it’s not only the designs of the shirts that are unique. Ghettotees is a self-described ethical business that prints its designs exclusively on shirts made by American Apparel clothing, a company that prides itself on providing above-average conditions for those who work in its Los Angeles factory. Ghettotees markets itself as an “alternative to boring Queen’s shirts and garments that are made in sweatshops.” Wait a minute. Does that mean some of those dollars students drop every year in the name of school spirit are going into the pockets of sweatshop owners?

Valberg isn’t sure. She said she hasn’t looked into the manufacturing practices of licensed Queen’s clothing, but said she is skeptical of many manufacturers’ claims.

She cited Montreal-based Gildan Activewear, which has come under fire for its alleged treatment of workers in its Salvadoran factory—allegations the company denies. Some students do own El Salvador-made Gildan T-shirts bearing the Queen’s name, although it is unclear whether the manufacturer is a licensee.

“The [Ottawa Citizen] article [I read] mentioned [Gildan] had received a lot of bad press about where they make their clothes, but it never really confirmed anything,” Valberg said. “[These companies] outsource a lot, too, so they don’t consider that they’re the ones producing the clothing.”

Valberg says American Apparel T-shirts are more expensive, but it doesn’t matter to her.

“[Corporate social responsibility] was pretty central because we’re doing shirts, and it’s a pretty black and white decision: you either go with the cheap shirts, or you pay a bit more for something ethically produced,” she said. “For me, there was no decision. It was either American Apparel, or not doing it at all.”

The University has been taking action to promote ethical business practices for the past five years through its membership in the International Collegiate Licensing Association (ICLA), said Debra Easter. Easter is the administrative assistant and trademark licensing coordinator for the Dean of Student Affairs Office.

The University requires the use of any Queen’s trademark, including the University crest and the word “Queen’s” in any font, to be licensed.

Queen’s pulls in gross royalties averaging $30,000 per year from the sale of licensed products, Easter said, at seven per cent of the wholesale price. This still pales in comparison to corresponding figures from south of the border.

Chris Tabor, general manager of the Campus Bookstore, said the annual sales of insignia clothing alone at American schools such as Duke or UCLA often dwarf the annual sales of everything his store sells.

Easter said this makes the American schools the trendsetters in the field.

“Our office has been monitoring what our American colleagues are doing on the sweatshop issue,” she said. “They have been the ones to follow because of the size of their licensed clothing industry.”

Since November 2000, Queen’s has worked with the ad hoc group Queen’s Students Against Sweatshops (QSAS) to implement codes of conduct for licensed businesses.

The current policy—which has been in effect for the past 18 months—requires licensees to provide the University with a list of their suppliers and manufacturers as a condition of the renewal of their license.

Easter said the University doesn’t currently monitor the practices of the organizations listed by licensees.

“We have the information now, but we haven’t had cause to monitor and haven’t had [an] agency to do it on our behalf,” she said.

The names of licensees, but not their suppliers, are available from the Dean of Student Affairs Office upon request. Two of the licensees are American; the rest are Canadian.

The PEC “greys,” for instance, are printed by local licensee Primetime Marketing on Russell Athletics brand T-shirts and shorts. Spencer DeRose, a Primetime sales rep, said that’s the brand the PEC requests.

Russell Corporation, which also manufactures Queen’s sweatshirts, has come under fire in the past for its labour practices. But like many apparel manufacturers, it has paid more attention to corporate social responsibility in recent years. The company’s website, russellcorp.com, details its “International Operating Principles.” These include the company’s expectation that “operating facilities and employees ... comply with all applicable laws, practices and regulations of the countries in which they are doing business, including those of the United States,” and a stipulation that any Russell employee must be at least 17 years old. It also acknowledges that “in-country laws [regarding hiring discrimination and diversity in the workforce] will ... always take precedent [sic] over company policies.”

In-country laws, however, don’t always deliver the ethical foundation many corporate social responsibility advocates seek.

DeRose said despite clients’ or suppliers’ best efforts, it can be difficult to ascertain exactly what business practices go into a given garment, regardless of where the manufacturer is based.

“It depends on if you’re looking at the level of where the garment was assembled, or where the cloth was woven, or where the cotton was picked, or where the polyester was blended,” DeRose said. He added that in filling out customs paperwork for Fruit of the Loom products, he has noticed that identical garments included in the same shipment will be made in five or six different countries.

Within the next several years, in recognition of these challenges, the University will be implementing a full code of conduct outlining the labour standards required of licensees and suppliers, including minimum wages, workweek guidelines and a ban on forced labour. It will also be joining a monitoring agency that will investigate conditions in plants that produce licensed merchandise on the University’s behalf. It is currently working with QSAS to decide between two different possible groups.

“This isn’t a new issue to any apparel manufacturer,” Easter said. “Most licensees will have their own code of conduct. Ours is pretty standard—most universities will have the same one.”

Easter said the issue of ethical clothing manufacture is important to the University.

“Our university would not want its name on any merchandise that we were aware that people were treated inhumanely,” she said. “No organization would want that.”

The sheer size of North America’s collegiate clothing industry means that if all schools adopted a similar attitude, they could make a sizeable dent in the market for sweatshop-produced garments.

Ian Gordon, Comm ’05, is co-chair of Queen’s Students for Corporate Social Responsibility. The group tries to promote ethical business practices, and sees educating the business leaders of tomorrow as a good place to start. Starting next year, the Queen’s School of Business will incorporate a mandatory second-year course on business ethics. Gordon said as business schools change their curriculum to incorporate ethics, businesses will hopefully become increasingly socially minded.

“At many universities, they simply teach that profit is the bottom line,” he said. “We believe in the need to teach the triple bottom line: social, economic and environmental responsibilities.”

DeRose said he currently sees mixed demand for “ethically produced” clothing.

“There is [a market for it] to a degree, or else companies like American Apparel wouldn’t have the success they do.”

DeRose said Primetime is the largest American Apparel supplier in Kingston. Canadian companies including Dubwear and Barbarian, both of which produce clothing sold at the Campus Bookstore, also boast of ethical business models and produce more than 95 per cent of their clothing in Canada.

“I think it’s part of the selling pitch,” DeRose said. “[But] I rarely discuss that option with a client. Usually they’re much more concerned about price, and the lower-priced products tend to be made offshore.”

For Valberg, the dirty pair of sneakers dangling from a phone wire over Earl Street—a Ghetto quirk captured on one of her shirts—isn’t the most obvious instrument of corporate social responsibility, but it’s a start. She said she thinks ethical business models are beginning to gain recognition. Besides using American Apparel clothing, she also donates $1 from each “I love the Ghetto” T-shirt she sells to War Child Canada, a non-governmental organization that helps war-affected children.

“I think that in [Ghettotees’] case it’s the shirts and the designs that draw people, and after that, they realize that [the ethical business aspect] adds value ... It’s kind of the icing on the cake,” she said. “But, I want to get across to people that you can have something really cool that’s made in an ethical way.”

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