Re-Examining Ethical Purchasing

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

When Coke came back to campus last semester after taking its year-long sabbatical from the College, we weren’t too upset. You see, we knew it wasn’t such a setback for those of us who hoped for Swarthmore to become a more ethical place, since the College had promised that, in exchange for returning Coke products to campus, it would hire two students as Ethical Purchasing Researchers, whose task it would be to draft a report suggesting guidelines to regulate the College’s decisions as a consumer. As the Phoenix wrote on September 10 of last year, the College pledged that “a minimum of two Lang Center research assistants will be hired this semester for a semester-long or yearlong ethical purchasing research position. They will aim to answer questions such as: ‘What are other schools doing? What would such guidelines be?’” Researchers have been researching, and they should be presenting their findings to the rest of the College community later this semester. Should we really be excited? Let’s find out.

For one thing, it would have been nice to have had a real committee, instead of just two student interns. The Kick Coke campaign, in its heyday, made painfully apparent the need for formalized processes governing not only purchasing decisions, but the ability of students and student groups to question those decisions—and even to demand they be changed. In 2007, there was talk of creating a committee to review these matters: a Gazette article published on May 11 of that year detailed the creation of a working group by then-Lang Center Director Jennie Keith to draft a proposal for a “trial run” of such a committee, which was slated to take place during the 08-09 school year. At that time, Keith shared some of her thoughts on the matter with Lauren Stokes: “President Bloom wants the process to be more efficient so that his office doesn’t have the responsibility of explaining things every time there’s a new campaign, but ‘we also started hearing from students about ways the current situation didn’t work well because there isn’t a clear process for bringing their concerns forward… this committee would provide education about decision making, and would help issues stay alive more than four years, since some issues are hard to sustain if the leaders graduate.’”

Stokes goes on to say that the working group “created a draft proposal for a committee that would field student proposals [which] states that ‘it will [be] the task of the Proposal Review Committee to evaluate the proposed practice to see if it is in line with the ethical commitment of the college based on principle and precedent, as well as to evaluate the practicality of the proposed change.’ The committee would work to make the proposals viable and then ensure that the best ones reached appropriate decision-makers.” So, where did that proposed committee’s trial run go?

For another thing, it would have been nice if the student interns had been allowed to cull ideas from outside the ethical purchasing guidelines already established by other colleges and universities. Limiting the scope of the Lang Center interns’ research to the ethical purchasing policies of other institutions effectively eliminates the possibility for Swarthmore College to assume a leadership role among institutions of higher education in this area. We recognize the importance of learning from the experiences of other colleges, but we would hope that, by incorporating wider perspectives—and maybe even some innovations of our own—we might arrive at an even better policy tailored specifically to fit the culture and values of Swarthmore.

We spoke to Zein Nakhoda ‘12, one of the interns who worked at the Lang Center last semester researching ethical purchasing guidelines for the College, to try to get a sense of how the search proscriptions imposed by the College affected the work he ultimately produced. Zein started off his work tremendously optimistic about the progress he could help to make on ethical purchasing. Though he hoped at first that he was “going to be able to give some creative ideas” as part of his role, he soon discovered that “we [the Lang Center interns] were really limited in terms of what we could put in there.” In particular, he notes that the interns were told to look only at direct purchasing policy, preventing them from having any influence over College investment policy.

By the end of his research, Zein felt as though his contributions to any ethical purchasing policy were limited by the restrictions placed on the interns, and that he and his colleague, Rebecca Kranz ‘13, were unlikely to have much opportunity to give their input. Finding a way for students to have a voice in purchasing decisions—beyond just protesting them after the fact—represents, for him (and, we might add, for us), an issue of real concern, but an issue he did not have the opportunity to address, because it fell outside the scope of the report.

Given the disappearance of proposed Proposal Review committee, and the experience of one of our two Lang Center interns responsible for examining ethical purchasing guidelines, it’s hard not to worry that the student body has been baited-and-switched when it comes to ethical purchasing. Since the students who were present during the Kick Coke campaign have long since left campus, the issue of whether Swarthmore behaves as an ethical consumer has faded from campus dialogue. In this time of budget cuts and belt-tightening, it has become even more important to pay close attention to issues of ethical purchasing—and ethical investing—to make sure that we use none of the more limited resources at our disposal in ways inconsistent with our institution’s values. For these reasons, we look forward to the time when the Lang Center interns, in the words of that September Phoenix article, “present their findings to the community this spring.” While such a presentation should occur, these students are unlikely to have the last words on the matter, since it will most likely be kicked up to a higher level of administrative review. Well, whatever, hooray for ethical purchasing!

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