Adam Waxman

October 15, 2007

Environmental activists at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC, had a lot to celebrate this last Earth Day. On April 25, about a dozen active students, faculty and staff gathered in the spring sunshine to commemorate Guilford’s first solar-heated building. Campus activists had convinced the administration to spend tens of thousands of dollars refitting Shore Hall with solar panels rather than engage in costly repairs of the all-woman residence hall’s broken hot-water heater. For activists, this represents an important first step in achieving real investments in ecological sustainability. Malcolm Kenton, a student leader of Guilford’s ForeverGreen club, noted, “The smaller the group or institution, the easier it is for it to make major changes.”

Angie Moore, coordinator of the environmental studies program at Guilford and another leader of the green movement on campus, notes that things have really “taken flight” around these issues in the last two years, with the college’s president committing $50,000 to a newly formed “sustainability council” of students, faculty and staff tasked with developing green initiatives on campus.

The march toward fair trade

All over the country, students are working hard to convince administrators on their campuses to make similar investments in things like green architecture, fair trade goods, and sweatshop-free apparel. Their tactics are at times aggressive–the famous sit-ins across the country organized by sweatshop opponents come to mind–but all of these activists have a similar goal. Students around the country are asserting their right to have a say in how universities spend their tuition money–and that universities use their power as spenders to promote justice.

In the last 10 years, student organizations around the nation have ballooned in size, strength and scope. As discussed below, two significant movements worth exploring are labor-based and environmental-based student organizations. It’s important to note that the current successes of the student movement didn’t happen by accident–the current growth of student activism developed from strategic investment in college activists by advocacy organizations looking to the future.

A national movement focusing on college budgets makes sense. Consider that, according to a recent report (pdf) by the Sustainable Endowment Institute, the 100 best-endowed colleges and universities in the nation control a total of $258 billion in assets. To put that in perspective, the Defense Department’s budget in 2007 was about $400 billion. Working together, U.S. students could outspend the Pentagon. Where did this movement come from? Where can it go in the future?

Today, two fair trade movements are prominent on college campuses. First, students around the country are involved in efforts to green their campuses–investing practices that support environmental justice. Secondly, students are working with the labor movement to develop anti-sweatshop policies and pressure their college administrations into pursuing pro-worker policies on campus. This isn’t to say that other movements aren’t afoot harnessing the power of the college’s purse–the Student Anti-Genocide Coalition‘s campaign around Sudan comes to mind–but Big Green and Big Labor have each been present on campuses across America for the last 10 years, and the history of their growth can be instructive.

Dirty laundry

In the early 1990s, the word sweatshop came back into the American lexicon with a vengeance. The combined work of labor unions, international human rights advocates, and investigative journalists exposed the low pay, inhumane working conditions and often-blatant disregard for the law facing many garment workers in the United States and abroad. Sweatshop Watch, a West Coast-based organization formed in the 1990s, notes that two major exposes of sweatshop conditions propelled the movement into prominence–one involving a Southern California factory where immigrant workers were paid as little as $2 an hour, and the other exposing the fact that the Central American factories fabricating TV personality Kathy Lee Gifford’s personal clothing line employed girls as young as 12 years old.

The garment workers’ union UNITE! (now UNITE/HERE) worked with human rights activists to raise consciousness among the general populace. Students, understandably, reacted negatively to the idea of wearing a shirt made by someone younger than they were. After a string of lawsuits and mounting pressure against multinational corporations, labor activists turned their attention to college campuses. The organic activism of students across America combined with strategic commitment by organized labor produced one of the strongest national student organizations in the United States, United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS).

According to its official history, United Students Against Sweatshops germinated in the halls of the garment workers union UNITE!, where three summer interns responded in 1997 to anti-sweatshop campaigns at several major universities by producing the nation’s first sweat-free campus guide. The alliance between students and unions made perfect sense.

“Today many young people focus on creating measurable success in their communities and on their campuses–places where their voices carry the most weight,” noted Elana Berkowitz, manager of strategic initiatives for the national student organization Campus Progress, in the Washington Post. Labor had invested in campus activism before the anti-sweatshop boom–showing students that they could have a local impact over things they directly controlled.

Student Action With Farmworkers represents one of the most famous student-union alliances in the country. SAF, a national nonprofit based in North Carolina, brings students and professors to the Carolinas to experience the perspective of the people who pick the food that goes on their plates around the country. SAF, founded in 1992, has had an immeasurable impact on how students view the food in their cafeterias. Other student leadership initiatives such as Union Summer, sponsored by the AFL-CIO, further develop student leadership and show them the link between their lives on campus and the lives of workers. Victoria Dulce Cepeida-Mojarro, one of three staffers in USAS’s Washington office, notes that while these programs are important, USAS “has always been independent” of unions while working with them.

Campus clothing choices

Students are intensely interested in working on issues that affect them locally. It wasn’t a big leap to look at the sweatshops on TV and realize that the clothing made for universities around the country might bear the mark of oppression. Students began forming anti-sweatshop organizations all over the country–and in July 1998, 30 student organizations from across the nation came together in New York City to form United Students Against Sweatshops. What began as a relatively scattered movement across a handful of campuses has really blossomed over the last ten years. USAS boasts over 200 affiliated chapters nationwide, including a sizable contingent of high-school affiliates. USAS has also worked to build an effective infrastructure capable of achieving its goals.

USAS’s primary campaign revolves around students convincing their campus to join an independent organization called the Workers’ Rights Consortium. The WRC, founded in 2000, brings together students, labor representatives, and university administrators in an effort to provide independent sweat-free certification for member schools’ clothing suppliers. The WRC investigates factories from Southern California to central Indonesia to ferret out abuse and lawbreaking by suppliers, allowing schools to make a conscious decision to buy sweat-free. There are roughly 175 schools affiliated with the WRC, with more joining all the time.

USAS’s growth and development of affiliate organizations like the Workers Rights Consortium has allowed it to branch out into other areas beyond garments. Over the last decade, the student-labor movement has begun converging with the student-environmental movement on the issue of fair trade.

Going green

Like the story of USAS, student environmental activism exists as a combination of local student initiative and institutional support from environmental organizations working with activists. As noted in the introduction, many local activists are dedicated to improving environmental standards on campus–with organizations like the Sustainable Endowment Institute and Energy Action Coalition, students are working to decrease their campus footprint and raise awareness about how decisions made on campus can impact the wider environmental world.

Like labor-oriented work, environmental work on campus has seen a boom in the last few years. As an example, the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, a national network designed to serve as a resource for green activists nationwide, formed in 2005 as a merger between several regional environmental groups. AASHE boasts over 200 affiliate members. Its programs, which commit colleges to actions like a zero-carbon footprint to combat global warming, boast even more signatories. Again, like the student-based labor movement, concern for the environment on campus didn’t grow wholly formed from the earth–it was nurtured by leadership development programs like the National Wildlife Federation’s Ecology Fellows program, which provides grants to students working on sustainability issues on their campuses.

Along with fellow activists in the anti-sweatshop movement, environmental activists are branching out. Greens on campus are moving from things like solar panel installation and working on issues closer to USAS’s mold–questioning campus investments in companies that damage the environment. Guilford’s Kenton perhaps sums it up best: “If Guilford were the greenest school in the country in terms of [the environment], we still wouldn’t be fully sustainable if … people weren’t paid enough or still had issues of racial … intolerance.” It seems that, during this decade, green activists and labor activists at America’s colleges have come together around an opponent they are intent on driving off campus: the Coca-Cola Co.

Aggressive students, fed up with its human rights and environmental records, have hit Coca-Cola, that titan of American capitalism, smack in the face. According to Cepeida-Mojarro, USAS’s involvement in anti-Coke campaigns was driven by members’ concerns about human rights in Coke’s bottling plants in Colombia; USAS began a formal campaign against Coke in 2001. Meanwhile, environmentally conscious students around the country were concerned about Coca-Cola’s record in India. Together, students have banned Coke from such venerable institutions as Rutgers Law School in New Jersey and Smith College in New Hampshire, along with smaller schools like Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, citing a host of environmental and labor concerns. Coca-Cola feels the heat– according to Swarthmore College officials, last year the company asked the International Labor Organization to conduct a review of its labor practices in response to all the criticisms.

There’s no telling where the pressure that sparked this investigation will lead. However, it does show that it pays for students not to be silent. The reality remains that colleges do control a lot of money–and students can redirect that money for justice by working together with support from their elders in allied movements. Other social movements would do well to emulate the investments made by labor and sustainability activists in student leadership and training–those investments are starting to mature, and the sky’s the limit.

Get involved! Contact the United Students Against Sweatshops and Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education to see how you can make a difference!

Adam Waxman graduated in 2007 from Guilford College. He currently lives and writes in Washington, DC. Contact him at adam DOT waxman AT gmail DOT com. A collection of his published writings can be found at