Student activists convince Penn State to take action over sweatshop concerns in Bangladesh

This March, Penn State’s United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) Chapter successfully lobbied the university to terminate its licensing agreement with apparel manufacturer JanSport because the company failed to sign the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh.

The decision was made after the university sent a letter in December to the company, a subsidiary of VF Corporation, giving it 90 days to sign the accord or face the possibility of the marketing agreement coming to an end.

Penn State Vice President of Student Affairs Damon Sims said that the university had previously ended licensing agreements with other VF Corporation brands for failing to sign the accord.

“JanSport has argued that it is not subject to Penn State's expectation that licensees sign onto the accord,” Sims said. “At the same time, JanSport is a subsidiary of VF Corporation.  They have a significant presence in Bangladesh.”

According to a USAS press release, Penn State joins 16 other universities in ending licensing agreements with JanSport, including fellow Big Ten member, Rutgers University.

Penn State USAS President and LER student Deanna Nagle said that Penn State administrators told her they had received no response from VF to the December letter. She, along with other members of USAS, met with Penn State administrators including Sims, Vice President for Administration Tom Poole, and Penn State President Eric Barron to discuss the university’s decision.

“We’re really happy the university did the right thing and followed through on their promise,” Nagle said. “It was really important that they did this given the size of Penn State and its visibility.”

VF Director of Corporate Communications Craig Hodges defended the company’s efforts in Bangladesh in a March article that appeared in the Daily Collegian. He said that those concerned about VF’s role in worker safety in Bangladesh would find the company is a member of the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety.

But according the Penn State USAS Vice President and LER student Elexa Mabry, “The alliance differs from the accord in that it is not legally binding and fails to allow the workers affected by safety issues a voice in decisions.  The alliance is controlled by the big corporations, and is kind of a mystery — it seems like they created the alliance to run things how they want.”

The Penn State USAS Chapter was started by LER and other majors in 2005 to ensure that Penn State-licensed apparel is not made in sweatshop conditions.