Under Armour Under Fire

UH Hilo not affiliated with Worker Rights Consortium

Staff Writer Clara Scheidle
Poll data taken by Ke Kalahea through email survey sent to UH Hilo athletes

Larry Bush

The Worker Rights Consortium is an independent organization that keeps track of apparel vendors, particularly those that sell clothing that bear university logos, in order to assure that the rights those working for the industry are protected. According to their website, the organization was created in 2000 by “university administrators, students, and international labor rights experts.”

Their mission statement also provides that the WRC “conducts independent, in-depth investigations; issues public reports on factories producing for major brands; and aids workers at these factories in their efforts to end labor abuses and defend their workplace rights.”

Their website contains a list of academic institutions that are affiliated with the WRC and their cause. As of April 1, 2019, there are 191 universities and colleges across the U.S. that are affiliated with WRC and hence must respond to their code of conduct. UH Hilo is not on this list. Neither is any other school in the University of Hawai`i system.

Margaret Stanley, UH Hilo’s bookstore manager who has extensive experience in the apparel industry, points out that UH doesn’t just sell Under Armour clothing. It tends to be pricey, and she wants to be sure that “there’s something in here for everyone.”

The only restriction to the bookstore’s inventory is that it cannot sell brands in competition with Under Armour. Additionally, the bookstore is proud to carry brands such as Cultural Blends, which is designed by a former UH student (you would recognize his work—anything that says Hilo Always Reigns is his design), Tom’s, which donate a pair of shoes for each pair that is bought, and even brands that use recycled or sustainably sourced materials to make school supplies. Stanley emphasized that there are “always alternatives,” and she encourages to search for them.

Athletes don’t get that choice: they have to represent the university and, therefore, the brand at the university. Bria Beale, a student and volleyball player mentions in a survey that she doesn’t tend to think about where her clothes come from because she “is not always able to control of getting to choose.” Despite this, she still believes that UH should place importance on workers’ rights for wherever we get our clothes.

“I don't think we should support companies that don't exercise workers rights,” she says. “Especially because, as a university, we would be spending a lot of money.”

Her opinion and others are reflected in a poll Ke Kalahea sent to student athletes, in which 87.5 percent of respondents note that it’s important to them that the clothes being provided are through a company that endorses workers’ rights. Despite this, every respondent answered that they were given no information about Under Armour upon receiving their garments.

“There are many rights that should be fundamental across the board all over the world and I believe workers' rights is one of those rights,” responds Olivia Jarvis, a cross country athlete. “Supporting those companies who do endorse workers' rights are enforcing a positive work environment and order, which UH Hilo should support as well.”

UH Hilo Athletics Director Pat Guillen is the one who signed the contract with Under Armour when he first came to the school. According to him, it’s likely that UH Hilo wasn’t sponsored by anyway before he came. UH Mānoa followed shortly after, with Guillen’s help. To be clear, the way that the sponsoring works is that sports brands like Under Armour, Adidas, Nike, and others will propose a bid in order for the school to wear only their brand and not sell any competing brands.

The person in charge then decides which bid and brand is best for the school. Although he was unable to disclose how much the bid was on our school, Guillen provided that he believes it might be the best out of all Division II schools on the West Coast.

Brands get value off of schools representing their company; it’s a good way to get exposure and gain a good reputation. Guillen points out that in order to verify that their standards are up to code, companies like Under Armour and Adidas avoid anything that might bring them bad publicity, such as accusations against Nike that have been reported about since the 1970s. Guillen also discloses that though Nike refused a bid on UH Hilo, he would never accepted the deal. He personally distrusts and dislikes that brand.

Under Armour is one of the more expensive brands to be sponsored by, which Guillen says speaks on their quality of not only product but it’s production. The practice gear, which can include shirts, shorts, socks, and shoes are bought for the athletes every year. The uniforms for all the sports change out every three years. UH Hilo’s budget for apparel is between $80,000 and $100,000.

“Because of this, it’s expensive to change brands,” says Guillen. So he made sure to do his due diligence, researching Under Armour on his own to find out about where their clothes come from, the production process, and the workers’ rights. While some people may not consider how their clothes are being made, for Guillen it’s an important factor that must be addressed. “I was very pleased with what I found,” he says. “Under Armour might be the best out of all of them.”

The Under Armour website does indeed include a tab titled “Labor, Health, & Safety.” This is then divided under four sections: Assessment Methodology, Supplier Code, Human Rights Due Diligence, and Stakeholder Assessment. In the section about human rights, Under Armour states that they adhere to the code set up by the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

In addition to this, it was announced on March 14, 2019, that the Fair Labor Association now accredits Under Armour with their social compliance program. As per the FLA’s website, this means that the company has “strong policies and practices in place to set goals, monitor, and remediate problems to improve conditions for the workers within their global supply chain.”

“UH can rest easy knowing we are working with a good vendor,” affirms Guillen. He states that the WRC is just another box for universities to tick. He also points out that bigger schools, such as the powerhouses of University of California and California State University systems, have a lot to lose when it comes to taking a bid with a vendor; their reputation is at stake. So we can be sure that they’re doing whatever they can to verify that their clothes are being produced and obtained in a safe, humane manner.

It should be noted that all UC and CSU schools are part of the WRC. Guillen and Margaret both mention in passing that it’s important to have an awareness whenever we partake in the garment industry.