Universities need to tackle modern slavery head on.
Euan Healey was at a conference last August hosted by Just Love, an organisation for Christian students who are passionate about social justice, when he wondered what he could do to help those in need. Healey, a second-year History and Politics student at the University of Glasgow, said the conference got him thinking about modern slavery, and where Glasgow fits into the discourse. Healey felt that he needed to help campaign against slavery; otherwise he was being complicit in the atrocity.
“The only way to look at the history of Glasgow is at slavery,” Healey said. “It’s wildly hypocritical to say we’re fine with it now because while slavery was abolished on our soil it never ended; it became more hidden and less explicit to us in the West. Either you care about slavery or you admit to yourself you don’t actually do.”
After the conference, Healey reached out to his friends from Just Love to start a campaign against fast fashion. Fast fashion is the production of cheap clothes utilising workers who are exploited either through underpaid or unpaid labour. In countries that are primarily impoverished and rural, textile and garment production will also utilise child labour, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund. Slave Free Campus was formed a month later in an effort to find a way Glaswegians could be more ethical in their clothing consumption. While researching solutions, Slave Free Campus discovered that the University of Glasgow Gift Shop sold clothing from fast fashion companies. Healey said that the Gift Shop currently sells apparel from Fruit of the Loom and Russel Athletic. Despite claiming ethical certifications, both companies, which are part of the same manufacturer, received a D+ in Tearfund’s 2018 Fashion Report, and they meet less than half of the Fashion Transparency Index’s measures. Healey said other brands in the shop could also be utilising slave labour, as brands often hide behind poorer certifications or are ignorant of where their clothing comes from.
“Most supply chains don’t know they’re involved in slave labour because the process is so complex,” Healey said. “There’s a place that dyes, a place that makes the clothing, somewhere that refines the cotton and people who pick the cotton. The chance no one is abused in that process is quite low unless the consumer or University shop holds the product to a higher standard.”
Slave Free Campus created a petition in January calling on the University to end the sale of clothing that is slave-made, produced in unethical conditions and not made to the standards of the Fair Wear Foundation, which is an organisation that works with the garment industry to improve labour conditions in garment factories. The petition also wants the University to recognise its responsibility to defend the rights of enslaved people as a moral imperative among other similar actions.
Within two months, the petition had already reached 350 signatures. Kath Malone, a fourth-year Theology student at the University, attributes the success of the petition to what she calls “entry-level activism”, or activism that is easily accessible and relatable to multiple people.
“It’s such a journey from being made aware of a social justice issue to actively changing your attitude and lifestyle,” Malone said. “We don’t want to turn anyone away by saying, ‘If you buy any fast fashion you support slavery and you’re a bad person’ because that isn’t true. Instead, we want to inform people about how to shop better through entry-level activism such as signing petitions and learning alternative ways to buy clothes. Entry-level activism is an easy way to get involved with an issue without getting overwhelmed.”
Slave Free Campus continued their activism on 5 March by taking a 24-hour-long stand outside of the University Library to raise awareness of the University’s ties to fast fashion. Members of the group worked in shifts by holding signs and answering students’ questions. If a student was interested, the members directed them to their online petition.
Peter Dijkhuizen, a fourth-year Astrophysics student, asked Slave Free Campus how many signatures it would take until the University paid attention. “The University is hypocritical saying it’s green and ethical when it isn’t taking action on something like this,” Dijkhuizen said. “Students should hold the University accountable.”
The Gift Shop is not technically part of the University but rather run by GU Heritage Retail Limited, a subsidiary company of the University which donates all of its profit to the University, according to the Gift Shop’s website. However, Slave Free Campus has already been in talks with the Glasgow University Students’ Representative Council on how the shop and University authorities can move together in selling more ethical clothing.
SRC President Scott Kirby said he has put Slave Free Campus in touch with the relevant members of staff in the University who oversee the University’s commercial services. He also said the SRC will be attending those meetings to help add to the voice of the campaigners and ensure the right outcomes are generated from those conversations.
“It’s a real credit to the students behind the campaign to have generated so much interest in this topic so quickly on campus, and as the SRC we will always strive to support campaigns such as this,” Kirby said.
This is not the first time the University has addressed its ties to slavery. Last August the University said it would pay £20m in reparations for a joint centre on development research with the University of the West Indies after it discovered it had benefited financially from Scottish slave traders in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The Hunterian has also benefited from money derived from the slave trade, as researcher Dr Lola Sanchez-Jáuregui discovered last year that a reflecting telescope at the University belonged to Alexander MacFarlane, a merchant and slave owner in Jamaica. The Hunterian hosted a panel on 31 October about undergoing the process of decolonising its collections and confronting its links with the slave trade.
Slave Free Campus is also calling attention to alternatives to fast fashion. One organisation it has been promoting is oot, which is a student-run shared wardrobe through Instagram (@ootglasgow). If someone has an outfit they would like to lend, they can contact oot to advertise it on their account.
Interested borrowers can then meet the lender to wear the outfit for their special occasion and return it shortly after; minimising the need to buy an outfit and never use it again.
Consumers in the UK already have a problem with discarding perfectly wearable clothing. The average UK shopper only wears 70% of what’s in their wardrobe and throws out 70 kilograms of textile waste annually, according to the Waste and Resources Action Programme.
Sophie Mahandru, a fourth-year Philosophy student and member of oot, said: “We think that Slave Free Campus is doing a great job of bringing people’s attention to such a historically overlooked issue, as we recognise that half the battle with issues like is the intentional lack of transparency.”
Healey said the key to Slave Free Campus’s movement is working with the University and not aggressively demanding immediate change. As the organisation continues to promote more ethical clothing consumption and second-hand shopping, Healey believes that it is not about 100 people shopping perfectly, but rather 10,000 people trying their best.
“This is a lifelong fight. You don’t buy clothes once. You have to make a lifelong decision, and life is long and clothes are expensive,” Healey said. “There’s no such thing as a £2 shirt. Someone isn’t being paid.”
Slave Free Campus will continue to work with the University to bring more attention against fast fashion. The group’s petition can be found on its social media pages and signed online.