Among the many reasons I blog is that writing helps me clarify my thinking. It often starts when I discover something which suggests I may not be “walking the talk.”
So it was that I recently was thinking about the inconsistencies in my life when I espouse support for economic justice, the rights of workers, and environmental sustainability and at the same time pay little heed to where I purchase things I use everyday, year after year, and will continue to do so until I die: clothing. And it was soon thereafter that I was thinking about how I was modeling the kind of behavior I wish to instill in the students at my school, who each day wear required uniforms.
I found that I knew very little about the sourcing of our school uniforms. Ditto for our athletic uniforms or “spirit wear.” Where was it made? Was the cotton organic? Was the wool from farms that treat their animals humanely? What was the percentage of recycled materials used in synthetics? Are the workers in the factories treated fairly? Is child labor involved?
It was questions like these that led a number of college students to pressure their schools into supporting “sweatshop free” clothing in student stores. The disparate efforts on dozens of college campuses coalesced into a national movement, United Students Against Sweatshops. The young leaders of USAS are inspirational and courageous, and unafraid of taking on their local institutions or corporate groups they feel are manipulating the public and the press through greenwashing organizations such as the Fair Labor Association.
Colleges often point the way for secondary schools, especially college-preparatory institutions. Given my disquiet about my personal buying habits and my lack of knowledge about our school’s buying habits, I asked members of my extended personal learning network what their schools were doing about school clothing. Their responses were informative.
The most frequent reply was along the line of: “We’re looking into this too. Please let us know what you discover.” These were closely followed by: “It’s really hard to find vendors that fit our criteria for sustainability and social justice, and offer a low price.” A couple of people suggested vendors (more on that in Part 2).
School Uniforms, Spirit Wear, and Athletic Uniforms
Three categories of clothing describe 95% of what school stores offer students and parents.1 While there is some overlap among vendors, I was struck by how many tend to specialize in one area, and also by the local or regional markets of the companies. The clothing market for schools seems fragmented, due no doubt to the low order volume per school and customization requirements.
In the area of school uniforms, several factors characterize this market:
- Families demand durability in school uniforms which, unlike consumer-market clothes, are meant to be worn for 180 school days a year.
- Children grow rapidly, contributing both to new sales but also a robust re-sale market.
- Legacy students often wear–quite proudly–the hand-me-down uniforms of older siblings. Like re-sale, this hurts the sale of new garments by the uniform company.
- Many school uniforms are customized with a school logo, a patch or needlework, a custom tartan pattern, or some other distinctive marking requiring special handling by the manufacturer.
- Parents, already suffering sticker shock from tuition and books, like uniforms to be cheap, as in “cheaper than regular clothes.”
You can see the competing interests here: low cost, high quality, and customization. Fortunately, computer-aided design and automated cutting and sewing machines are enabling cost effective, mass cutomization of apparel, even though the final assembly and shipping is still very labor-intensive.
Spirit wear refers to t-shirts, shorts, sweatshirts, hoodies, hats, and so on that typically have the logo of the school embroidered on printed on the garment. Like the school uniform, these items are likely to be sold through or brokered by the school’s student store. In some cases, the student store orders “blank” apparel from a source and has the school’s logo applied by another vendor set-up to do very small production runs. Doing business locally and with a printer with whom the school has a relationship is very helpful when one has to obtain items on short notice, or if there’s a mistake in printing.
While the buyer in the school store may control school uniforms and spirit wear, in most schools it’s the athletic department that handles the purchase of team uniforms. Several people in my PLN indicated that athletic departments were less interested in whether or not a product was organic or sweatshop free and more in style and performance. It is common to see the logos of major companies like Nike, Adidas, Reebok, Champion, and Wilson adorning the uniforms alongside the school name. Schools that might otherwise cringe at the idea of corporate sponsorship of other items (for example, prohibiting corporate logos on polo shirts) seem to accept this with school uniforms. While perhaps not as overt as Channel One or corporate-sponsored curricula, stuff like this drives the Center for Commercial Free Public Education crazy.
Up next: Where to get the good stuff…