Ethical purchases not guaranteed

Although the University has a Trademarking Code of Conduct, it’s impossible to be certain that all Queen’s apparel items are made ethically, says trademark licensing coordinator

The University came under scrutiny in 2006 after entering into a three-year contract with Russell Athletics.
The University came under scrutiny in 2006 after entering into a three-year contract with Russell Athletics.
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Common Ground's coffee is now both organic and fair trade
Common Ground's coffee is now both organic and fair trade
Photo: 

Six years ago, the University’s athletics apparel provider, Russell Athletics, came under fire after alleged unethical labour practices took place in one of its outsourced factories.

The company had subcontracted some of its apparel production to Hermosa Manufacturing and its factory located in El Salvador. In 2005, the factory was closed suddenly after a complaint, leaving 320 workers unemployed and with outstanding unpaid wages.

A year later, Queen’s locked into a $200,000, three-year contract with Russell Athletics. The administration came under criticism from campus groups, such as No Sweat Queen’s, for signing with the company.

The alleged labour conditions were not compliant with the University’s Trademark Code of Conduct, and Queen’s, along with several other Canadian schools, didn’t renew their contract in 2008.

The Student Affairs Office’s code of conduct on trademark licensing, developed in 2004, applies to all Queens’ apparel and works to protect the University’s brand and logo.

“The University will do business only with licensees whose workers are present to work voluntarily, are not at undue risk of physical harm, are fairly compensated and are not exploited in any way,” the Queen’s Code of Conduct states.

The Code is based on one recommended to Canadian universities by the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC). It addresses issues like wages, hours of work, overtime compensation, child labour, forced labour, workplace health and safety and compliance with local laws. Once a year, the University’s 45 licensees are required to submit the contact information of their manufacturers to the University, which are compared to manufacturers the WRC is investigating.

“It’s a worker complaint- driven situation. Workers have to complain and they do complain,” said Debra Easter, trademark licensing coordinator for the University.

“We wouldn’t know if no one complained about it,” Easter said.

Easter can’t confirm that all Queen’s merchandise on campus is made in sweatshop-free facilities.

Queen’s does the best it can to abide by the Code though, she said. She believes it’s not possible for any university to make a guarantee of being totally sweatshop-free, since it’s not possible to know where every thread and button on the clothing is made.

In 2008, the University ended its contract with Russell Athletics and began one with PrimeTime Marketing, which provides Adidas merchandise.

Easter said she assumes Adidas has its own code of conduct, but since it’s not a direct University licensee, no direct contact between the two takes place.

The University hasn’t received notice of any complaints about the Adidas manufacturer, Easter said.

Queen’s law professor Kevin Banks said it appears the University is getting good data from the WRC to check against. “It’s a good outlet for implementing codes of conduct. They’re considered to have good standards.”

Banks believes it’s impossible for a brand to completely monitor a supply chain.

“The most constructive approach is to generally engage with your suppliers in remedying problems.”

Although there have been some changes at Queen’s, it was student action at the University of Toronto 12 years ago that ignited the birth of a trademarking code of conduct at the school.

In March 2000, 20 U of T students stormed their principal’s office in protest of the University’s purchase of sweatshop-made clothing.

The sit-in lasted 10 full days and only ended when the administration told them to leave if they wanted to negotiate. They left, and two months later, the University’s Governing Council passed a trademark licensing policy that applied to all U of T marked apparel.

The policy states that the University’s name and trademarks can only appear on products that “are produced under humane and non-exploitative conditions.”

This move made U of T one of the first Ontario universities to adopt a trademark licensing policy, according to the school’s Director of Ancillary Services, Anne MacDonald. At the time, adhering to such policy wasn’t standard in Canada.

Large American schools tend to have large athletics departments, and therefore a larger market for apparel, she said. This means many of these schools adopted trademark-licensing policies far before schools in Ontario.

Like the U of T trademark licensing policy, the Queen’s policy applies to a wide variety of apparel items, including those sold in the campus bookstore as well as athletic apparel and team uniforms.

According to Queen’s Campus Bookstore General Manager Chris Tabor, any items found to be made unethically will be removed from the store’s floor. The University has no direct auditing system, but in compliance with the trademarking code of conduct, licensees must provide contact information for all their manufacturers.

“We have a principled approach more than an economic one,” he said. “There’s no one at the University … that wants to go to bed at night knowing they saved a nickel of a t-shirt that was made on the backs of an exploited child somewhere.”

Most of the items the bookstore sells are manufactured in Canada, such as Barbarian rugby sweaters from Kitchener, Ontario and Calhoun Athletic Apparel based in St. Catharines, Ontario.

Other companies the bookstore purchases from, such as Hanes, have factories that have met standards set by the Fair Labor Association, Tabor said.

Several years ago, it was a group of students under Queen’s Oxfam that encouraged the Bookstore to make changes as part of their No Sweat campaign, which ended in 2011.

Now, the group focuses more of its efforts on fair trade food and clothing items due to a shift in focus.

Four days a week, they run a fair trade co-op in the lower ceilidh of the JDUC where fair trade items such as coffee and chocolate are sold.

The items are identified by a logo on the packaging that certifies it as fair trade from Fairtrade International. Since the booth is run by volunteers and the food is sold at cost, the prices are lower than those found at grocery stores, said Queen’s Oxfam co-chair Nina Butz. Chocolate bars are sold for $2.50 and coffee is sold for $3.50.

Butz said ethical purchasing is something that’s easy for students to do, but enough action hasn’t been taken by the AMS.

“The AMS couldn’t make a difference right away in terms of the school’s policy. But they’re way more easier to access about policy than the administration,” Butz, ArtSci ’14 said. “The AMS would be amazing to have on our side in terms of spreading awareness.”

The AMS currently doesn’t have any ethical purchasing policies in place.

“To formalize a process of ethical purchasing would be a process for the Board of Directors, but the AMS feels that it is best to give our services flexibility to serve students, while encouraging them to be ethical,” Taylor Mann, AMS communications officer told the Journal via email. This, he said, is exemplified through its services.

Last year during the fall term, AMS service Common Ground switched its coffee company from Multatuli to Club Coffee, an organic, fair trade product.

Although Multatuli was organic coffee, it wasn’t certified fair trade. Instead, it was certified Rainforest Alliance, another type of ethical certification that focuses less on how products are traded and more on farm sustainability.

Head Manager Mackenzie Goodwin, ArtSci ’13 said there was a communication error, and the managers at the time believed the coffee to be fair trade.

“We thought that they were and we weren’t notified properly. When we were notified, we made the switch,” she said.

She said she hopes future management teams will focus on developing an ethics policy.

“It’s hard to make huge changes when you’re keeping the business afloat.”

Queen’s Hospitality Services also provides fair trade coffee in all of its dining locations and some retail locations, not including the Tim Hortons outlets, said Bruce Griffiths, director of Housing and Hospitality Services.

Foods other than coffee are harder for Hospitality Services to access as fair trade, he said.

“There are some issues of availability and there are still some items where there is a significant cost difference,” he said.

Because items such as tea and coffee have a high volume worldwide, their cost, even at a fair trade level, is comparably low.

Although campus food contractors Brown’s Dining Solutions and Sodexo play a main role in determining where the cafeteria food comes from, Queen’s is able to have a say regarding the sale of fair trade items due to the nature of the contract, Griffiths said.

Queen’s pays for all expenses relating to its food services, so it can determine what products are sold.

Right now, they’re keeping an eye out for fair trade opportunities, but the costs have to be justified. The Service’s Food Committee makes decisions as to what products will be purchased.

Since the switch to fair trade coffee several years ago though, Hospitality Services hasn’t seen any new proposals from students, Griffiths said.

“Students are involved in the decision. They also have to live in the same sandbox as administration does, as there are costs and tradeoffs and balances.”

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