Students gathered at the University of Toronto Students’ Union’s (UTSU) recent Special General Meeting-turned townhall to discuss a motion for ethical divestment. Over 15 years ago, students fought to end the sale of unethical products at U of T.
Establishing ethical guidelines
In 2000, U of T’s Students Against Sweatshops (SAS) successfully lobbied the university’s Governing Council to pass a code of conduct for U of T’s clothing suppliers. To this day, Trademark Licensing, a program at U of T, aims to ensure the university’s marks are ethical and of high quality.
U of T has an intensive vetting process that companies, called “licensees,” must go through before they can produce goods and apparel with U of T’s logo or marks on them.
In an open letter to president Prichard published in The Varsity in 2000, SAS admonished the university for its indecisiveness.
“We were surprised to learn of your recent hesitation in adopting a code of conduct with provisions for a living wage. After the forum hosted by the University on 31 January 2000, we thought it would be clear that a new code without such language is ‘behind the times’”, the letter stated.
In another article published in The Varsity, SAS organizer Ian Thomson, emphasized what students were hoping for in the code of conduct.
“We demand that they tell us in which factories U of T clothes are being made,” said Thomson. “No more secrets! The code demands that the factory location must be made public.”
SAS bargained with the university for over a year, and after a decision was pushed back one too many times, 17 students held a ten-day sit-in at then president Prichard’s office. Since the code of conduct was passed, U of T has been a leader in ethical sourcing among Canadian universities.
Anne Macdonald, director of ancillary services at U of T, pointed out that post-secondary institutions in the United States began similar programs before U of T, but that U of T was the first to do so in Canada.
“It’s not just that we started doing it first, it’s also that other schools have contacted us and asked about having programs similar to this across Canada,” Macdonald said. “That’s a positive thing, if other schools see that were doing something good and they want information about how to implement something similar, that just helps to raise awareness about apparel manufacturing.”
Current policies and remaining problems
Today, U of T works with Learfield Licensing, a licensing agent that checks U of T’s licensing companies, as well as two NGOs to ensure the ethical production of its branded clothing.
The Workers’ Rights Consortium (WRC) works with businesses and corporations, while the Fair Labour Association (FLA) has on the ground employees that take in direct reports from factory workers.
“[Licensees] sign an agreement with our licensing agent, but effectively they sign an agreement with the university that they will abide by our code of conduct and that they share information with us at that time about where they manufacture, factory names and so on,” Macdonald said. “They sign off on that and they renew that agreement every year. Then they are permitted to produce U of T merchandise.”
The current agreement licences require companies to disclose to U of T where their products are manufactured. However, loopholes can still be found due to the complicated nature of supply chains. U of T has agreements with their licensees, but the licensees have their own suppliers.
For example, an unethical source could sell blank products to a licensee, which could then responsibly use those products at their own businesses.
“What we can do in that instance is we can urge the company that we have a written agreement with to procure responsibly,” Macdonald said. “If we have reason to be concerned about the activities of a supplier of our supplier, if you will, we still do have recourse… We could raise concerns and we could apply pressure to the company that we have an existing written agreement with, to investigate the concern with that and the manufacturer.”
For products without the U of T logo, the Bookstore has more leeway, and suppliers do not necessarily have to follow the same code of conduct. However, in an emailed statement to The Varsity, the Bookstore said, “The Bookstore [uses] the same sources for those items for the ease of purchase.”
For the most part, U of T receives reports from the WRC and FLA about areas of concern and then Trademark Licensing will investigate further to see if any of the licensees are involved.
“Typically what we would do is if we heard there was a factory of concern or a region of concern is talk to our licensees and work with our licensees and engage them,” Macdonald said. “If they are actively involved in doing something wrong, obviously the very end part of the process would be that we would stop doing business with them, but the real goal for them is to change what they do to ensure that if they are in fact engaged in these countries and there are conditions in the workplace which are substandard and not according to our code of conduct, our goal would be to try to get them to change that. Not to just cease doing business with them, our goal would be to try and influence how they operate.”
The current policies allow for dialogue, but some students do not think this is enough. As various groups on campus call for divestment from other investments at the university, students remain critical about where their fees are going.