A made-in-Canada ethical purchasing strategy?

Oxfam Co-Chair Kate Whitelaw says manufacturers should have to prove they operate ethically.
Oxfam Co-Chair Kate Whitelaw says manufacturers should have to prove they operate ethically.

Pressure on the University to adopt a designated suppliers program is on hold after a U.S. Department of Justice decision stalled the program’s implementation.

The designated suppliers program (DSP) requires universities to source most of their logo apparel from supplier factories compliant with ethical labour standards. The program is organized by the Worker’s Rights Consortium, an independent labour rights group of which Queen’s is a member.

The consortium helps universities adhere to their codes of conduct, which require their suppliers follow ethical labour standards. Queen’s current system is complaints-based, however: suppliers aren’t checked up on to ensure their compliance.

The DSP would require suppliers to prove compliance in order to qualify for approval.

The program was stalled last week following a decision by the U.S. Department of Justice, which decided not to give the program a letter of permission protecting it from lawsuits on the basis of anti-trust legislation, which is meant to prevent corporations from colluding to the consumer’s disadvantage.

Workers Rights Consortium Executive Director Scott Nova said anti-trust legislation shouldn’t have applied in this case, and they will reapply for the letter next year, following November’s presidential election.

“We believe that a different justice department would grant the letter,” he said. “It’s a delay we think is temporary. … We will have to wait until there is a new president and a new attorney general.”

Without the letter, Nova said, universities can only sign onto the program on a provisional basis. About 30 U.S. universities have signed on. Queen’s has participated in DSP working group conference calls, but hasn’t formally indicated its support for the program.

“We were also talking with universities around the U.S. and Canada about the idea of university bookstores seeking to buy apparel from one or more companies that are willing to meet the DSP labour standards on a voluntary basis,” he said.

This would help institutions such as Queen’s make a bigger impact because although the University doesn’t purchase as much licensed clothing as large American schools, as a retailer the University has a monopoly on Queen’s apparel.

In the AMS winter referendum, 80 per cent of students voted in support of a Queen’s Oxfam plebiscite question on whether the University should adopt the DSP.

Kate Whitelaw, Oxfam Co-Chair (internal), said the plebiscite marked a victory for Oxfam and Queen’s students.

“The code of conduct is flawed. There is an underlying assumption that all manufacturers are good until they are proven bad,” she said. “The idea is to reverse this. Assume manufacturers might not be good, so they must prove that they are.”

Whitelaw said the DSP suspension is disappointing, but doesn’t change Oxfam’s goals. She wants to create a coalition of schools working to create a Canada-specific solution.

“We can create a critical mass by working with other universities,” she said.

Dean of Student Affairs Jason Laker said the DSP might not be right for Canadian schools.

“The whole premise of the program is to coerce producers to comply,” he said. “Canada is more likely to consider social conventions when forming laws and policies.”

The next step is for Queen’s to work towards a Canadian initiative with similar goals to the DSP, Laker said. A November conference at Queen’s with students, licensees and representatives from other universities was a step towards this, he said.

“The purpose of the conference was to discuss Canadian-specific ethical purchasing in regards to an approach for athletic apparel,” he said.

The University’s Trademark and Licensing Review Board is developing a framework to lobby the Canadian government to change its trade policies to make ethical labour standards a requirement.

He said the Athletics department is also looking into finding ethical suppliers for its apparel.

Athletics and Recreation Marketing and Communications Co-ordinator Dave Wilson said Queen’s Athletics doesn’t need to end its three-year, $200,000 contract with Russell Athletic to implement the goals of ethical purchasing, however.

Last year, Queen’s Oxfam brought forward a complaint that Russell was involved in a labour dispute with workers in El Salvador who were owed overtime wages and severance pay.

“The issue with walking away from the contract is that you lose leverage with the companies that are not conforming,” Wilson said. “Russell has agreed to address all concerns we’ve had.”

Wilson said the Athletics Department will re-evaluate its supplier in the spring when its contract with Russell Athletics comes up for renewal and it starts accepting new bids.

“At that point we’ll be looking with, probably, a number of groups to see what we’re going to be doing going forward.”

—With files from Erin Flegg and Anna Mehler Paperny

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