Nudging Bangladesh, at least a bit

Oct. 21, 2013 @ 09:04 AM

Students, alumni and fans who have never set foot on the campus except perhaps to watch a football game love to wear their school spirit.

That’s why college-team fan apparel is a multimillion-dollar business. You can buy all manner of clothing, from sober sweatshirts to madcap headgear, at campus stores, big-box retailers, sidewalk vendors and even your neighborhood grocery or drug stores.

Chances are, when you’re picking out that pullover sweater with the Blue Devil image, the hoodie with Duke across the chest, the sports shorts with the iconic “D” on the side, you don’t give much thought to where they are made.

But a student group at Duke thinks you should – and the Duke administration has, indeed, been giving that thought.

Here’s the seamy underside of the college-logo-apparel market that in the back of our minds most of us probably know, but edge aside when we’re handing over the credit card for that $30, $40 or more purchase.  Much of that apparel is manufactured by workers whose working conditions and pay should give us pause.

That’s true of the apparel industry overall, to be sure. Our quest for low has manufacturers and licensing entities looking for low-cost production.

But especially in the wake of the catastrophic Rana Plaza factory building collapse in April that killed 1,129 workers, American consumers and retailers have become particularly sensitive to conditions in one of the poorest countries churning out goods for our consumption. Bangladesh, according to the New York Times, has 4 million garment workers in 5,500 factories.

Last week, Duke required all factories licensed to produce Duke-logo merchandise in Bangladesh to sign and follow the Accord on Fire and Building Safety. The accord stipulates independent inspections by fire safety experts, public reporting, repairs and renovations to factories financed by brands and a central role for workers and unions in overseeing and implementing the improvements.

Duke has had a code of conduct expected from companies that manufacture its licensed goods since 1997 – the “first code of conduct for collegiate manufacturing in the country,” according to Jim Wilkerson, Duke’s director of trademark licensing and stores operations.  Requiring adherence to the Code of Fire and Building Safety gives that code “more teeth,” Wilkerson said.

The accord is among Duke’s efforts with other universities to improve the conditions for those who make the merchandise they license and sell. Bangladesh “is not a pleasant place for apparel manufacturing and we’re doing what we can to improve the conditions for the workers,” he said.

One is tempted to suggest that simply declining to have merchandise manufactured in countries with those conditions would also be a statement. But realistically, that probably does less for workers in those countries than working to force somewhat better conditions.

And in the end, the enemy may be us, as consumers would likely reject the inevitably higher costs of manufacturing in significantly better conditions.