Despite Limited Options, Shopping Ethically in the BC Bookstore

Every year, it seems the actual “books” section of Boston College’s Bookstore shrinks, while the “everything else” section spreads like wildfire. With the holidays fast approaching, and friends and relatives eager to get their hands on some BC gear, I feel as if I need to ask the general student population: Should you really buy clothes from the Bookstore? Something we should all be mindful of—especially as we consider blowing large sums of cash on our loved ones—is whether or not we are honoring our values with the purchases we make. One issue of particular importance is the ethics of fashion: Knowing where, by whom, and under what working conditions your clothes are made should be at the forefront of your mind when making decisions about what companies to buy from. Ultimately, every dollar spent is a vote in favor of a company’s practices.

Given the context of a university that prides itself on being men and women for others, one might expect that anything sold on campus would be ethically sourced. This is not necessarily the case, however: The Bookstore sells a plethora of clothing brands for men and women, and recently I decided to investigate the ethics of their production. I started off by asking the Bookstore director, Tina Plotegher, how it decides which companies to work with and how much research goes into ensuring that these companies are indeed ethical. She said that they choose their suppliers based on the needs and preferences of the community they serve. She also said that they work with Alta Gracia, “an apparel factory in the Dominican Republic that pays its workers a living wage sufficient to support a family.” Fair enough—this is absolutely true, and it is very reassuring given that The Atlantic called them “the tiny Dominican factory that disproves the need for sweatshops.”

Regarding the question of how the Bookstore researches and ensures that the companies it works with are ethical, Plotegher explained that BC buys products from vendors who adhere to “the highest ethical labor standards.” The Bookstore ensures that the manufacturers, with whom it partners, maintain legal practices so their employees are always “voluntarily present at work, not at risk of physical harm, fairly compensated, and not exploited in any way.”

While this sounds excellent, the Bookstore still stocks products from brands like Champion, which is owned by Hanesbrands. Champion has an “E” rating on Rankabrand.org for its lack of transparency regarding the sustainability of its business practices. Similarly, Hanesbrands has been criticized for being complicit in wage theft in Haiti in 2013, committing workers rights violations in Honduras in 2015, unsustainably sourcing cotton in 2016, unethically sourcing conflict minerals from the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2017, and making it onto the International Labour Rights Forum’s 2010 Sweatshop Hall of Shame. While Hanesbrands isn’t all bad, there is plenty of room for improvement given these criticisms. Keep in mind, this is only one example of a major brand that has a significant presence on campus, supplying 76 unique products (after adding together men’s and women’s items), making it the second biggest apparel brand in the Bookstore, only after UnderArmour.

Naturally, refusing to sell these big brands in the Bookstore would present a considerable financial burden on the store given that smaller, more specialized brands tend to be more expensive and less capable of meeting large supply needs. Further, the Bookstore itself already seems to be making an effort toward ethical fashion by selling brands like Cutter & Buck, ’47, and New Era Cap Co., all of which are focused on selling and producing ethically sourced goods and materials. They have made an effort toward ethical fashion, which is likely much more than the average sporting apparel shop can say.

Because of this effort, however, the Bookstore doesn’t have much of an impetus to try to cycle out brands like Champion—what they’ve done is “good enough” by most standards, and they know that Champion meets the needs and preferences of the BC community. They know this because the BC community keeps buying Champion, regardless of the ethical ground on which the brand stands. As a result, the onus falls squarely on consumers—on us—to make informed decisions about our purchases. If we disagree with the gross human rights violations committed by giant corporate entities, we need to make our voice heard by not buying them. We also need to be aware of the ethical standards of the companies that sell us their products before we buy them. Whether this means looking them up on resources like Rankabrand.org or The Ethical Consumer Guide, or downloading one of the various apps for ethical shopping, any effort expended will have an impact if it is performed by enough people. Given the presence of great ethical brands just as conveniently located on campus, there is no reason, and no excuse, to buy unethical fashion from the Bookstore this year.

Featured Graphic by Anna Tierney / Graphics Editor