Q & A with Amelie: Fair Trade at University of Louisiana at Lafayette
We recently took a few moments to check in with Amelie at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette about their campus fair trade efforts. We hope that their example will be an inspiration and a guide to other campuses looking to more fully integrate fair and ethical trade. Note that since Amelie began her research and work, CRS has launched an expanded Ethical Trade program, full of resources, shopping guides and links to companies with whom we partner. You can also learn more about & find resources for fair and ethical trade on campus here.
CRS is so grateful for the outpouring of solidarity with those around the world who produce so many of our goods. Thanks for making that commitment tangible through your fair trade efforts. Can you share more about what you did and why?
Amelie: This semester the CRS Student Ambassador chapter at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette led a campaign to have our Ragin' Cajuns Bookstore carry fair trade clothing sourced by the Alta Gracia factory in the Dominican Republic. We began this campaign by first educating ourselves- which brands does the store currently carry, are there labor issues with these companies and are the lives of the Alta Gracia employees better than the lives of the brands we carry? We found that our bookstore holds mostly Nike and Adidas, which have had many egregious workers' rights violations. In contrast, Alta Gracia pays their workers more than three times the local minimum wage (enough to support a family of five), was created by a workers union that is strong to this day, has top notch working conditions, is monitored every week by the third party Workers Rights Consortium, and best of all costs no more than the other clothes we have in our bookstore!
Who were the key organizers? Were there campus leaders (students/staff) or offices/departments involved? How did you connect with the right people?
Amelie: As CRS Student Ambassadors, we were able to spread our impact by getting other student groups to sign on to a Fair Trade Coalition. We had student groups ranging from the large Student Government Association and the Muslim Student Association to the smaller Spanish Club and Grief Awareness Association and everything in between. To connect with the right clubs, we first just invited anyone to join by passing out the coalition document at Get on Board Day (where all the clubs gather to recruit members), from there we identified clubs that we have worked with in the past, hold a lot of influence on campus, or has a social justice focus in their work and we invited them individually and personally. As a coalition we dropped off a letter and a petition to President Joseph Savoie every week asking that he meet with us about the matter and included what we hoped to see as a result of this campaign, namely that the bookstore would carry a meaningful amount of clothes from companies that pay their workers a living wage. We learned the hard way that our letters were perceived as too demanding and forward. Despite this setback our Student Government Association and the Office of Sustainability spoke on our behalf, and the President instructed our Licensing Department to begin filling out the forms with Alta Gracia so that they can put the UL Lafayette logo on their apparel. The bookstore manager would be instructed to make an order once the clothing was licensed.
How did you get people to join the effort and support the cause?
Amelie: In order to continuously gain new petition signatures and expand the coalition, we spoke after many classes (especially those that had topics such as justice, economics, or sustainability already integrated in their syllabus), and had an advertising table at a three or four different events around campus. We also held a tabling event with performance art involving a sewing machine and handcuffs, which drew a lot of attention. Students reached out to us for conversations about labor issues and were excited to get involved by signing the petition.
What was the most impactful part of the experience for those involved?
Amelie: Everyone's favorite part of the experience was our final event, a Skype call with three employees of Alta Gracia. We got to hear from them how the village was being torn a part when a previous factory was exploiting labor, harassing its female employees, and finally closing down and firing everyone when the employees attempted to form a labor union. They shared with us how now they are not only able to have good and safe work that provides a living wage for their family but that they are also able to attend university and seek higher management positions with Alta Gracia. Our club seeks to further solidarity in all of our events, and seeing those we had worked so hard for all semester face-to-face, hearing their story from their own mouths, really made us feel connected in a very deep way. The best part of the event was when we received an email from the Licensing Department mid-Skype call that announced that they had approved and sent off our first apparel order to Alta Gracia.
What resources did you use—CRS & otherwise?
Amelie: The primary resources that we used, which included sample letter forms and a step-by-step campaign guide, was provided to us by Solidarity Ignite, a small non-profit with the purpose of helping student groups lead campaigns to get Alta Gracia on campus. Their email is firstname.lastname@example.org. We also used CRS' "Live Mercy in the Marketplace" and "Dignity and Rights of Workers: Zambia" to connect the importance of fair trade in our moral lives.
What advice would you have for campuses looking to mobilize their campus around fair trade?
Amelie: I learned from this experience the importance of rolling with it all. We had a whole plan: we were going to meet with the President and he was going to take care of everything from there. We made the mistake of not fully understanding our University and Administration's culture, and because of this had to quickly pursue an alternate route. It is important to really know the power structure of the Offices and Departments that will be involved with seeing your campaign through, to make friendly relationships with them (we baked cookies), and to be willing to go with their plan even if it looks different from yours. In the end we were successful and that's all that matters :)