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An Open Letter to UNC President Ross and Chancellor Folt: Commit to the Bangladesh Safety Accord

Update: This article is now re-published in the Huffington Post (in slightly abridged form!)

I am writing as a blogger and graduate student at UNC-Chapel Hill to express my concern about UNC’s current unwillingness to join with other private and public universities to support tougher safety standards for the purchase of UNC branded clothing. I fear that failure to do so will only rebound to negatively affect our own image into the future. I urge you to require all university licensees to sign the Bangladesh Safety Accord.

As you well know, on the evening of April 23, 2013, the eight-story Rana Plaza building in Savar, Bangladesh collapsed, killing more than 1,000 people and injuring more than 2,500 in what has now been deemed the deadliest garment factory collapse in history. Since then, students across this nation have taken action. Through the hard work of United Students Against Sweatshops, the largest student coalition since the anti-apartheid movement, bringing together 150 University and college affiliates nationwide, twenty universities have signed the Bangladesh Safety Accord. This accord is an unprecedented, legally-binding agreement between apparel companies and global and Bangladesh unions that has been joined by over 150 brands and retailers worldwide. These universities now require that all of their licensees producing and sourcing goods from Bangladesh sign the Accord as well, forcing them to take responsibility for their subcontracted factories in a meaningful and committed way that can “transform the garment industry from deathtraps to safe workplaces.”

The universities that have signed the Accord have included prominent private institutions such as Duke, University of Pennsylvania and Cornell, and large state schools similar in size and reputation to UNC-Chapel Hill, such as Michigan, Penn-State, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and University of Washington-Seattle.

It has been exciting to witness such a diverse range of institutions that have demonstrated an investment in valuing workers’ voices and lives. It has thus been disappointing and frustrating that neither of you, President Ross and Chancellor Folt, has made any kind of similar commitment on this issue.

Since the fall, the UNC End Deathtraps coalition has been campaigning persistently to get Chancellor Folt to sign the Accord. Workers, students, community members, the Chapel Hill Town Council, and the University’s Licensing Labor Code advisory Committee (LLCAC) – a committee composed of faculty, students and administrators – have strongly recommended that the Accord is the best option for both workers and UNC.

Despite this adoption of best practices elsewhere, President Ross, your recent memo, delivered the night before the one year anniversary of Rana, states that licensees producing and sourcing goods from Bangladesh should be given the option to sign on to either the Bangladesh Accord or the Alliance for Worker Safety. But the Alliance is a company-controlled, non-binding agreement that has been critiqued for its exclusion of workers and their representatives and for its failure to obligate brands to pay for factory safety renovations. If licensees choose to sign the Alliance, then they would not be required to make any tangible changes in garment and apparel factory workplace safety. Instead, they would be resorting to the same self-regulatory approaches that have tragically failed workers far too often. They would be, in essence, doing what they have already done.

Allowing brands to continue to supply to UNC whether or not they sign the Accord would allow current suppliers like North Carolina based VF Corp., owner of North Face, Jansport, Vans, and Timberland, to continue to escape accountability for their workers’ safety. VF Corporation has an alarmingly sizeable presence in Bangladesh, sourcing from 91 factories and employing 190,000 workers. Despite its many safety violations that have demonstrated deep negligence and disregard for human rights and safety, including a 2010 factory fire that killed twenty-nine workers in a VF supplier factory, VF is refusing to sign the Accord.

UNC’s failure to insist that all licensees sign the Accord only allows VF’s blatant disregard for worker safety to go unchecked. This not only threatens workers’ lives but also negatively impacts UNC’s image. Do you really want to imagine a situation in which a woman’s body is hauled out of an unsafe factory clutching a garment made by VF Corporation, a company with which UNC has a sizeable contract? I know that you are both people who are regarded as having high ethical standards, and I’m sure you would not want this on your conscience.

The LLCAC has worked constructively to examine our standards. As Dr. Steve May, a professor on the committee put it, “There was no doubt in our mind that the Accord would be the best option for workers and UNC. Our committee saw very few reasons to go with the Alliance and plenty of risks.”

Given that most of the other major licensees with collegiate production in Bangladesh have signed the Accord, including Adidas, Knight’s Apparel, Fruit of the Loom, and Top of the World, this recent decision made by Tom Ross and supported by you, Chancellor Folt, to give brands the option to ‘choose’ between the Alliance or the Accord seems to stem from a reluctance to terminate VF corporation’s contract if it does not join the Accord. What is UNC’s interest in protecting VF’s Bangladesh operations?

On the contrary could you not make an argument that the more UNC supports the Accord, the greater is the chance that jobs might come home to North Carolina’s textile factories that were priced out of the global market by our collective indifference to the conditions that foreign workers slaved in overseas?

The Chapel Hill town council has recognized this. After being approached by University students, they agreed to require that their city uniforms only be sourced from apparel producers that have signed on to the Accord. As Maria Palmer, town council member put it, “I believe North Carolina workers should be able to compete on a level playing field, and for the textile corporations like Greensboro-based VF to take their manufacturing jobs to Asia and pay their workers less than $100 per month and force them to work in dangerous and difficult conditions, and say they can not do anything about it, is a slap in the face of our workers here as well as abroad.”

It is embarrassing that UNC’s leadership has chosen to keep a contract with a corporation that has not only killed 29 people in Bangladesh, but has worsened conditions in the state by abandoning its local workers. And it is beyond disappointing that you both have chosen to side with a corporation over the needs and requests of its workers, your students, and the community in which you both live.

For the last few years, UNC has been plagued by plagiarism scandals and charges of massive Title IX violations. I was encouraged by a recent email you sent, Chancellor Folt, in honor of sexual assault awareness month, in which you stressed the importance of educating “our communities about the impact of sexual and gender-based harassment and violence.”

I would love to see the same amount of concern for the mostly female labor force in the garment industry, many of whom are the same age as the students here in Chapel Hill. These young women are often fired, sexually harassed, and even assaulted for daring to speak up against the injustices they face daily. As Aleya Akter, a Bangladeshi worker who visited UNC this month revealed to students, “When I would go home from work, hired thugs from management would harass me on the street and make threats to me.”

President Ross and Chancellor Folt, I urge you to reaffirm your commitment to the highest ethical standards and to demonstrate that our university will never sanction behavior that treats workers as though they were disposable. We are all citizens of the same global community, and this is a pressing human rights issue. As leaders of a major university with a prestigious reputation, you could really make a difference both in Bangladesh and by setting an example for your students. It’s time to do the right thing and require all university licensees to sign the Accord. That is the Carolina Way.

At the one year anniversary of Rana (photo courtesy of ILRF).

At the one year anniversary of Rana (photo courtesy of Solidarity Center).

Are you a UNC student/alum/supporter? Want to let President Ross and Chancellor Folt know that you want them to support the Accord?

To contact President Ross: Phone: (919) 962-9000 and Email: tomross@northcarolina.edu

To contact Chancellor Folt: Phone: (919) 962-1365 and Email: chancellor@unc.edu

Tweet @ChancellorFolt End Deathtraps! Do the right thing for workers and UNC! #SaveLivesAddTheAccord

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Bangladesh Factory Fires: Why Brands Are Accountable and Must Compensate Victims Now

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Ethical Fashion: How to Navigate the Industry

Zaroff In the final part of this series with Eco-fashion pioneer Marci Zaroff, I wanted to turn to the question of what it will take to really change the textile industry, what regulations need to be instituted, and in what ways we can empower ourselves to navigate through the many contradictions of what is indeed, a very complex industry.

Nadia: I would really love to hear what you think about the rise of Eco/sustainable fashion alongside the rise of ‘fast fashion,’ which encourages fast and disposable consumption of cheap clothing. How do we shift the cultural paradigm from this type of consumption to one that is slower and more responsible?

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Taking it to the streets. More than 300,000 people signed up to join the ‘Detox Zara’ campaign, which successfully resulted in Zara committing to go toxic-free by 2015.

Marci: The key is education, and that comes from driving awareness to consumers, retailers, media and buyers. And while deeper shifts are often more effective coming from top-down decision makers, passionate champions within a company and/or consumer demand (especially ignited by social & viral media) can affect positive change as well. Leveraging editors and celebrities, who are already conscious about their lifestyle choices can also be very powerful. I am partnered with the Environmental Media Association, which works successfully within the television & film entertainment industry to create messaging about environmental issues. And consumers can indeed make a difference! Just look at Greenpeace’s Toxic-Free Fashion Campaign that has galvanized the global fashion industry, propelling International brands as big as Levi’s and Zara to commit to a toxic-free future.

Nadia: Sustainable, Eco-fashion has definitely gained steam in the past two decades, but it doesn’t seem to have really permeated our consciousness like organic food has. What would you say are the three biggest stigmas of Eco-Fashion?

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Far from frumpy. Eco-fashion label Noir‘s sexy collection at 2009 London Fashion Week.

Marci: The first stigma would be that to adopt Eco-Fashion, one must give up style or quality. Similar to the early years of the organic food movement, when organic food was associated with granola, today, when people hear the term ‘organic or Eco fashion,’ they often still conjure an image of boxy, frumpy, boring, beige, rough-to-the-hand wares. But just as organic & natural food is now a far cry from just brown rice, as witnessed by walking into any Whole Foods Market, Eco-Fashion is no longer hippie, but instead, very hip! Yes, in the early years of Eco-Fashion, there were limitations to designs in terms of fabrics we could use. And of course, there wasn’t as high of a demand, so pricing was more challenging, and there were fewer factories willing to be innovative and work out-of-the-box. But the industry has come a very long way, and is still a work-in-progress.

In fact, the second stigma, that Eco-Fashion costs a lot more, is also no longer true. Efficiencies and economies of scale have been met and further, vertically integrated supply chains have been built from farm all the way to finished product. That is how Under the Canopy has been so successful bringing affordable accessible product collections to market. We have cut out a lot of the excess markups and middlemen, so that the consumer gets a product that is priced competitively and has the added value of being sustainable and ethically made.

That leads me to the third biggest stigma: how can one truly believe that their product is authentic? This is where certification, as well as brand integrity and commitment are paramount.  Understanding how to navigate a supply chain, while crossing T-s and dotting I’s via traceability and transparency, is an absolute key to success.

Nadia: Well, and one of the arguments for sustainable clothing is that unlike fast fashion, where the clothes tend to be cheap and we have little to no connections with the people who made it, we’re less likely to buy sustainably made clothes in excess and toss it out when we’re sick of it, right? I mean, that’s kind of the realization I came to this past summer when I was cleaning out my apartment.

Project Runway's season five winner, Leanne Marshall, used sustainable materials for her final dress, helping to create awareness for eco-fashion.

Project Runway’s season five winner, Leanne Marshall, used sustainable materials for her final runway collection, helping to create mainstream awareness for Eco-fashion.

Marci: Because of the past roadblocks in accessibility, affordability and authenticity, Eco-Fashion was much more limited. But with a growing market for Eco-Fashion driven by consumer demand and industry-wide collaborations, more retailers and manufactures can have access to eco-friendly materials and manufacturing processes, and they will be more likely to support this shift in paradigm.

Because Ethical fashion is becoming more “fashionable”, and companies know that it’s no longer about staying ahead, but instead, it’s about not being left behind, there is a concern from many consumers that some companies are ‘going green’ to make their products more marketable. That is why consumers must be discerning as to what products, brands and companies they buy and support.

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Real charity or just clever marketing? Gap was accused of using marketing campaigns such as this one to detract from its many sweatshop abuses.

Nadia: That’s a concern I have had in the past and still have. And it’s not just with ‘going green,’ it’s with other aspects of social responsibility, that I feel companies sometimes will adopt marketing strategies to make their companies look better, when really they’re not being completely transparent. For example, I remember the controversy when Gap came out with their Red line, which donated a small portion of their proceeds from that line to Aids in Africa. There were anti-sweatshop activists who were upset that a company known for its abuse of workers would use a cause such as Aids to appear socially responsible. How can consumers navigate through these contradictions?

Marci: I think that this lack of transparency can really discourage people from being conscious consumers, because they don’t know what to believe. And in the Eco-fashion world, we’ve seen a lot of greenwashing, a practice by which a corporation will display insincere concern for the environment in an attempt to further their own agenda and reputation. Historically, it’s been a challenge to differentiate between which certifications are actually being monitored and accredited by third party certifiers, and there is still a huge disconnect in the consumers’ mind about which certifications matter. There’s a great website called the Seven Sins of Greenwashing that reveals the falsity of a lot of these labeling claims, including ‘all-natural’ (which means nothing – unlike organic, which is a legal word with very specific meaning) or calling something ‘green’ just because it contains one environmental attribute.

The importance of full transparency.

The importance of full transparency.

Nadia: Could you give us some examples of greenwashing in the textile industry?

Marci: Sure, I’ll give two. Bamboo is a perfect example, because it was marketed as the poster child of Eco-Fashion, but really, it is absolutely NOT sustainable as a material. Bamboo, when grown, is a renewable plant and actually very sustainable when used for flooring and furniture. But when you break it down into a textile, you must use enormous amounts of chemicals, which, in the end, leave only traces of bamboo. This process emits a magnitude and multitude of toxic chemicals into the air and water, and in doing so, destroys the sustainable aspects of the bamboo.  It is essentially no different from Rayon, which is a synthetic. Once the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) received complaints along these lines, they did some research and slapped lawsuits on many of the companies that were marketing bamboo textiles, making them change their labels and packaging to say ‘Rayon made from bamboo.’

Another example of greenwashing is when companies sell their products as ‘organic’ when their fabrics only contain a small percentage of organic cotton. Banana Republic, as an example, got caught marketing clothes as organic cotton when really they only contained about 5% organic cotton! “Organic” is NOT a marketing proposition; it is a methodology in agriculture and a federally-regulated term.

Nadia: Doesn’t Nike make those claims as well?

Marci: Nike is different because they are fully transparent. Unless a product isn’t 100% organic cotton, they won’t label it as organic. Believe it or not, Nike has been a true leader and pioneer in the organic cotton industry, and they have consistently been one of the largest buyers of organic cotton for over a decade. They were a founding member (along with Under the Canopy) of the Textile Exchange (formerly the Organic Exchange) and their efforts to shift the textile industry have been invaluable. Check out their recently released YouTube video:

Nadia: I know that you have launched organic/sustainable fiber initiatives in top retailers such as Whole Foods Market, Macy’s, Target, Bed Bath & Beyond. How committed are you to this idea of accessibility, in the sense that these companies may also be selling products that conflict with sustainability?

Marci: I am extremely committed to accessibility. I believe in the saying, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”  Therefore, every positive effort to offer consumers authentic sustainable choices is a step in the right direction. At the same time, this is where compliance and labeling are critical. As with the Banana Republic and Nike examples, the issue isn’t about companies only taking baby steps, it’s about full transparency. For example, Patagonia is a company with one of the most inspirational and well-respected environmental commitments that exists in the textile industry, but they are honest that they still have some things they need to work on. If you check out their amazing ‘Footprint Chronicles‘ online, you will be able to follow their supply chain and their efforts to make their company as transparent as possible.

Nadia: Designer Bruno Pieters just recently started the online retail site Honest By, which is the first 100% transparent company that gives customers a full cost breakdown of its products, so as to shed light on where the clothing is made and by whom. He recently noted in an interview that transparency is sorely lacking in the industry, and that no one really knows where their items are sourced, which is why he introduced ‘Honest By.’ Why are so few companies struggling to adopt this fully transparent model?

Marci: One of the biggest challenges I’ve come across with the large retailers I have worked with is how disconnected their different departments are. The marketing team isn’t speaking with the product development or sourcing teams, who aren’t connected with the Sustainability Directors or the buyers. These compartmentalized disconnects result in a lack of transparency, opportunity or effective communication strategies, and sometimes even result in tragedy, like at the recent factory fires in Pakistan and Bangladesh. For efforts to be truly sustainable for people, planet, profit, passion and purpose (“The five P’s”), companies must figure out how to plan, design, develop, source, manufacture and market with sustainable strategy and design models. The whole supply chain, from the farm and factory to the PR, has to be connected.

Nadia: Is this why it is so difficult to enforce multinational regulations?

Marci: There are inherent complexities with regulation. The challenge with the textile industry is that it is a global industry, and historically, certifications have sometimes differed between countries. As an example, I was on the team of people who wrote the first USA Certification of Organic Fiber Textiles, and in our trying to implement them across borders, there were huge inconsistencies with other countries’ standards. So how do you reconcile that? You need collaboration, and that’s what four different countries  –USA, Germany, the UK, and Japan- did when we created the Platinum standard for organic fiber textiles, known as the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS). This standard takes every part of a finished textile into consideration, from the farm (must be Certified Organic fiber) to the dyes, finishes, transport, packaging, labor, etc. It is a comprehensive authentic 3rd party accredited certification, which speaks to the very highest standards of excellence as a truly organic/sustainable textile product – for both apparel and home fashions. A recent breakthrough includes the USDA’s recognition of this standard as the textile counterpart to their USDA NOP seal that most people recognize on organic food products.

Nadia: Are there any companies that you think are taking the right steps towards sustainability?

Absolutely. For the mass-market, H&M has launched their “Conscious Collection.” Nike, Puma, and Adidas use sustainable fibers in their products. In high fashion design: Stella McCartney, Donna Karan, Ilaria Venturini, Fendi, and Vivienne Westwood have all introduced Eco-Fashion. Eileen Fisher also has begun integrating organic and sustainable fibers into her collections.

Vivienne Westwood is using her Red Label to create awareness about climate change.

Vivienne Westwood is using her Red Label to create awareness about climate change.

In addition to Under the Canopy and Portico, there are several other pioneering fashion brands making sustainable fibers and transparent ethical sourcing practices their focus: Lara Miller, Linda Loudermilk, Edun, People Tree, Kuyichi, Madera, Stewart & Brown, LoomState, and soon to be launched – FASE (Fashion-Art-Soul-Earth)!

Eco-fashion designers at NY Fashion Week share their mission to fuse style with sustainability, and counter ‘fast fashion’:

Nadia: I of course would love to hear about your label FASE, why you launched it, and how you hope it will change the perception of Eco-fashion and the face of fashion in general?

Marci: I wanted to address this new FASE-to-face movement, and the idea that we are all connected, from the people making the products to the ones who are buying them. In Spanish the word means ‘phase,’ so it also has a double meaning of entering into a new phase of humanity and social justice, of shifting the old broken paradigms. It’s time we do an about FASE and FASE forward, to FASE the facts, to FASE the future. FASE offers a new engaging and experiential platform to make people think, and connect. With its cache, creativity, accessibility and influence, I believe that fashion is the most powerful vehicle for change in consumer products.

Fashion is a form of expression and a way for people to make a statement. I don’t think the answer to consumerism is so black or white that we should tell people, ‘stop shopping.’ It’s really about shifting the paradigm of the fashion industry to a slower, more conscious, more sustainable way of engaging with the textiles we wear and use and the people who make them.

Nadia: And can you tell us more about your upcoming documentary Thread (trailer below)?

Marci: We hope that Thread can do for fashion what Al Gore did for climate change, which is to educate consumers about what is going on behind the scenes, to unveil the harmful human and environmental impacts behind the fashion industry that hides under the guise of glamour.

Beauty has always been inspired by nature, but because of modern-day society and commercial pressure for “more, faster, cheaper fashion”, and the industrial movement which has depleted and destroyed our Earth’s natural resources, we’ve destroyed the essence of true beauty.  Fast fashion is destroying our environment, the ecosystem that is a part of every one of us, disconnecting us from each other and from the roots of real beauty. Sabotaging our planet is compromising humanity’s ability to radiate from within, to be alive, thriving and confident, revealing the ultimate source of beauty. Universal consciousness is the soul of authentic beauty, with the notion that we are all interconnected on a very deep, energetic level.

I believe that in 2012, we have entered a new era of consciousness, one which will awaken us to come full circle back to our roots in nature. The Internet, social media, documentaries and YouTube are allowing us to pull the curtain back on what we’ve been taught and brain fed by mainstream media. We are finally able to counter advertising that feeds us false messaging, or denounce companies that employ non-sustainable practices that hurt the environment and people.

Nadia: As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “By the time you have finished your breakfast, you will have relied on half the world.”

Marci: And we should start every day with a sense of gratitude and abundance.

Nadia: Any last thoughts before we wrap up this series?

Marci: Yes, I just want to make it clear that this movement is about best efforts and better choices, not about perfection. With a commitment to consciousness, responsibility, authenticity and transparency, together, we can make a real difference, where the “alternative” can become the new “norm.”

For updates on Marci Zaroff’s other Eco Fashion ventures, check out her website at marcizaroff.com.

Thread Documentary Trailer:

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