Follow the logo.
If there is a guiding principle in the current wave of student activism, that is it.
At the University of Toronto, students are following their school's logo from T-shirts and sweatshirts to contract garment factories in Asia and Latin America. Last week, after a nine-day sit-in, students and administrators finally hammered out a strong code of conduct for the university's products. If it is approved by the U of T's governing council next month, the companies that license the school's insignia will have to pay their workers not only the legal minimum wage, but a living wage.
Teenage students at Toronto's Linden School also followed the logo last week, these ones on their Nike sneakers and Victoria's Secret tank tops. They staged a "sweatshop fashion show" in the school gym. Doing their best Kate Moss impersonations, they strutted down a makeshift catwalk while listening to stories of the punishingly long hours and low wages endured by the workers who keep them in cotton and denim.
The student anti-sweatshop movement, exploding on more than 200 campuses across North America, is taking student politics global and it is doing it by turning human rights into an issue as close to home as the clothes on your back, the shoes on your feet.
A pivotal moment took place two years ago when two seamstresses from a baseball-hat factory in the Dominican Republic went on a speaking tour of U.S. campuses sponsored by the garment union UNITE. As undergrads crammed into common rooms to hear stories about the lives of the women who embroidered school logos (Cornell, Duke, Georgetown, Harvard and the University of Michigan) onto baseball hats, they were confronted with the simple but devastating fact that these workers were the same age as them.
What is perhaps most striking about the current wave of logo-powered activism is that it is the very last thing that was expected from this generation. These are the card-carrying members of the all-important "demo," the one panted over by most every brand on the planet. They are studied by "cool hunters," spied on by "cyber informants," advertised to at school and, even, increasingly, marketed to by their friends in "peer on peer" distribution schemes.
Yet rather than accepting their role as passive members of branded logo tribes, today's student activists are using their coveted market status—and their schools' status as prized marketing partners—to demand accountability, transparency and responsibility from multinational brands such as Nike and Coke.
And rather than falling for easy solutions served up in slick press kits by officers of corporate responsibility, the demands of these PR-savvy students have only gotten tougher. They are now calling for a living wage, not just the legal minimum wage; an independent monitoring system, not one controlled by corporations; a direct line of communication between workers and monitors, not paper codes of conduct. Most challenging of all, they want the companies making their school clothing to provide them with lists of all their contract factories so they can hold them to their word.
In the United States, students have even formed their own institution to make these ambitious goals a reality: the Workers Rights Consortium, which will be officially launched this Friday in New York City. Already, more than 30 schools have signed on. And they are serious: on March 6, Duke University cut ties with 28 companies that refused to hand over a full list of contractors.
This latest wave of student victories has significantly upped the ante in the sweatshop wars, which is why Nike made an unprecedented decision last week. The company cancelled a contract with Brown University for swooshed hockey gear, citing Brown's membership in the consortium and its " 'gotcha' monitoring technique." It seems there is something even more valuable to Nike than branding college campuses: protecting its on-the-cheap production formula.
This formula is at the very heart of the disputes between anti-sweatshop activists and multinationals such as Nike. The demand for direct communication between factories and consumers flies in the face of the most significant manufacturing trend of the past 15 years—outsourcing the production of clothing, apparel, and electronic and even car components to a web of contractors and subcontractors. With resources freed up from the banality of the factory floor, companies are able to build up their gleaming brand identities with interactive superstores, glossy lifestyle magazines, and lavish sponsorship deals with sports and entertainment stars.
But by tracing the economic and social footprints of the logos that have tracked them their entire lives, these students are actively chipping away at the distance these manufacturers have inserted between their brand images and their often hidden sites of production. Bit by bit, they are pulling the dreamy brands back down to earth.
In the process, they are also turning their schools into a testing ground for reforming the global economy, learning to do what their politicians have failed so miserably at doing: impose cross-border, binding, transparent regulations on hyper mobile corporations. It's easy. You just have to follow the logo.
This article first appeared in The Globe and Mail.