RIT has become a brand name for sustainability. The university just invested in a shiny new sustainability building built for the shiny new sustainability Ph. D. program, and both Bill McKibben and Peter Singer have visited to present their views on the environment and social justice. RIT is doing a great job gaining a green image, but sustainability is not simply “being green.” Being green is a popular branding technique, but sustainability is much more than that. It is a matter of ethics, and it is not ethical to sell clothing made in sweatshops. Yet in the new bookstore there are brands that utilize sweatshop labor, and what makes it worse is that our university logo is on their clothing.
Sweatshop labor would not fit in the definition given by the “Our Common Future” report of the World Commission on Environment and Development that is quoted on the Golisano Institute of Sustainability (GIS) home page. In the report, sustainable development is defined as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
Sweatshop labor does seem to meet the “needs of the present,” but what of considerations for future (and present) generations? It is the same old industrial revolution model that has gotten the world into the trouble it is currently in. RIT does have a big “going green” campaign that ties into their commitment to sustainability, but it seems only to be a way to spend as little money as possible on energy, transportation, and so on by using new eco-efficient technology so that profits are larger. Even if “going green” was more than a marketing buzzword, it would still not display more than a shallow commitment to sustainability.
Sustainability is not just making sure our environment is safe, and it is not simply preventing “negative environmental effects, such as air and water pollution, solid waste, and biodegradation, which lead to larger, global problems including climate change and destruction of natural resources,” as the GIS homepage says. The needs of the present are not accounted for in this definition, nor does it consider the basic needs (water, nutritious food, and shelter) of people in extreme poverty.
If sustainability is about making sure that future generations have the ability to meet their own needs, then we cannot ignore the needs of those who are suffering now. Not only are there people around the world living without the most basic needs, but these people are also exploited for cheap labor, or, to put it bluntly, sweatshop labor. What part of this is sustainable?
We cannot ignore the fact that at the RIT bookstore there are sweatshop labor products. This seems unacceptable for an institution — an educational institution, at that — which is committed to sustainability, considering that over 100 universities have already pledged to be a “sweat-free” campus, most of which do not parade around a message of sustainability. This list includes many prominent universities such as Harvard, Stanford and Carnegie Mellon University. RIT seems to be far behind in this respect, especially since RIT claims to be an innovative campus.
RIT has shown little commitment to meeting the needs of the present. This makes RIT’s commitment to sustainability a fraud. Until RIT has a commitment to, at the very least, remove sweatshop products from campus, sustainability on campus will remain a fraud. This is a glaring deficiency in an educational institute with a commitment to sustainability. When sustainability means more to RIT than a marketing technique, it is only then the issue will be addressed and rectified.
The opinions expressed in the Views section are solely those of the author.