P e nn students don’t ignore details. Our wardrobes are often as meticulously curated as our resumes. As Fashion Week continues on our campus, we have a responsibility to remember not just what our clothing looks like or where we bought it, but where it originates.
With the inclusion of union-made, Alta Gracia clothing in our bookstore and the promise that all brands that produce our collegiate apparel will be required to sign the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, Penn is moving toward becoming a model for sweatshop-free college campuses. What is conspicuously missing from this equation, however, is the participation of VF Corporation.
Few of us have heard of VF Corporation, but almost all of us own VF clothing. The $11 billion retail giant owns more than 20 major U.S. brands, including The North Face, JanSport and 7 For All Mankind. In April of last year, the Rana Plaza factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh collapsed, killing over 1,000 Bangladeshi workers.
Although VF Corporation was not producing clothing at Rana Plaza, VF does employ more than 190,000 workers across Bangladesh. In December of 2010, 29 workers were killed and more than 100 were injured in a fire at That’s It Sportswear factory, which produces VF apparel.
The factory had illegal construction, no proper fire exits, shoddy wiring and locked exit doors. Workers were trapped on the top floors of the factory, and many jumped to their deaths in a desperate attempt to escape the flames. VF had repeatedly inspected the factory and yet had completely failed to address the safety hazards.
Despite these violations, VF Corporation has thus far refused to sign the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, a groundbreaking agreement that requires independent safety inspections at factories and public reporting of the results of these inspections. The Accord offers unprecedented levels of safety to Bangladeshi workers, and has been signed by over 150 corporations from more than 20 countries around the world.
The goal of the Accord is not to shut down factories or drain corporate profits. The Accord is a way for corporations to recognize factory workers as participants in their supply chain who deserve basic health and safety protections.
VF justifies their refusal to sign the Accord by pointing to their participation in the non-legally binding Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety. Unlike the Accord, the Alliance was designed entirely by corporations with no worker representation, and corporations retain complete control over the factory inspection process.
I, like many Penn students, own clothing produced by VF Corporation. Every backpack I’ve owned since middle school has been a JanSport, and I love a warm North Face jacket as much as anyone else. As consumers of VF apparel and as Penn students, we are in a unique position to stop VF from getting away with this injustice. Collegiate apparel contracts are immensely valuable to corporations like VF.
We asked for Penn to require the brands that produce for us to sign the Accord, and our administration did the right thing. We have a responsibility to make sure that our administration follows through if VF continues to refuse to sign the Accord. Of course, we don’t want to have to cut that contract. I fully believe that working with a corporation that respects the human rights of its workers is far superior to not working with that corporation at all.
This year’s Street Style — the Fashion Week issue of 34th Street — includes a spread on how to “be stylishly school spirited.” This guide to Penn apparel ranges from “classic” to “edgy.” I hope that soon, on either end of the spectrum, these sweatshirts, tees and bandeaus come with dignity and safety for Bangladeshi workers.
Devan Spear is a College freshman and a member of the Penn Student Labor Action Project. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.