Full Reflection Post

NGO

Matrix: writing for policy audiences, economic/tech space

Shareen Hertel

The challenge:

  • Providing policy advice on corporate engagement to one’s university from a human rights perspective, while being far removed from corporate decision-making.
  • Providing advice to the university as a professor but in a context that operates according to different norms from her teaching and research responsibilities.

The background and policy setting:

Hertel became an academic after over a decade in the policy arena working as a consultant and policy analyst for the United Nations and various foundations and wanted to bring this expertise to her work in the university setting. She was called into service within a semester of joining the University of Connecticut (2004-2005) to help the university with the ethics around supply chain challenges.[1] Hertel has served on the President’s Committee on Corporate Social Responsibility (PCCSR) at the University of Connecticut since 2004. This committee includes faculty, staff, and students who frame university policy on corporate social responsibility requirements for vendors through a Vendor Code of Conduct. Hertel has worked in various roles from serving on this committee to being its chair. She has she used her expertise on ethical supply chain management to offer advice on dilemmas such as challenges to firm-level compliance with codes of conduct within the collegiate apparel sector. The areas where she provides advice include factory safety, living wage determination, changes in regulatory policy related to traceability, and managing the scope of stakeholder engagement.

Hertel is frequently asked to provide advice to members of the University’s branding and licensing staff, namely in relation to the University’s procurement and production of logo-bearing apparel. The primary challenge she faces is providing policy advice from a distance.

The engagement:

Hertel has convened workshops, conferences, and roundtables to bring together University staff, such as the University of Connecticut’s branding and licensing team and the PCCSR, and corporate representatives of companies that manufacture licensed products for the University.  These forums have been ongoing since 2005. One notable conference in 2017 brought together a dozen licensing colleagues, NGO, business, academic, labor, and government representative.[2]

Hertel’s engagement with university licensing partners at the firm level is primarily arm’s length, except for their participation in university events. She researches the sector and the extent to which community members are impacted by company practices and sees her role in the collegiate licensing space as increasingly requiring her to act as a translator of sorts. She translates human rights principles into firm-level guidance on ethical supply chain management. Hertel interacts frequently with representatives of peak associations (such as the Fair Labor Association; Worker Rights Consortium; Verité; Social Accountability International) and seeks examples of best practices to integrate back into the policymaking process at her university. Her goal is to research and teach on ethical supply chain issues more effectively while at the same time being a catalyst for continued improvement in the overall level of human rights practice within this sector.

One specific example of Hertel’s engagement in this sector includes ensuring protection of worker rights and conformance with labor standards among university vendors. The problem was clearly defined because the University of Connecticut had a relationship with the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) and wanted to ensure compliance with the standards laid out it the WRC code. Hertel helped the university craft its own Vendor Code of Conduct that builds on this and broader international labor rights and environmental standards setting the benchmark for ethical supply chain management.[3]

This code was developed through an internal multi-stakeholder process managed by the PCCSR and was approved by the Board of Trustees. There has been remarkable coherence around the principles, and agreement on the nature of the problem(s) facing the collegiate apparel and product sector. UConn is now a member of both the WRC and the Fair Labor Association; Hertel and colleagues can influence continued upward motion in standards setting through participation in those collective forums. Hertel’s role has been to assess alternative approaches for managing challenges in relation to the University of Connecticut’s Vendor Code of Conduct, make recommendations, and evaluate the impact of the University’s practice in terms of best practices within and beyond the collegiate sector.

One limitation to her engagement has been that she advises full-time University staff who manage day-to-day operations. Hertel’s professorship constrains her role to providing advice from a distance, as she is not able (nor expected to) travel to specific workplaces to investigate claims of labor rights abuses within this role. Information on specific factory situations developed by monitoring organizations is shared with stakeholders at multiple universities and takes time to analyze and respond to, institution-by-institution. Hertel works through the PCCSR to access such information and to develop a comprehensive approach, but is keenly aware of the challenge of  managing the limits of discretion and confidentiality in policy work of the PCCSR, in which not all information is for public consumption – a practice quite distinct from norms for researchers and teachers.

What were the implications of the engagement?

The University of Connecticut plays a leading role nationally in the ethical supply chain arena.[4]

Hertel works with counterparts at other institutions to discuss how they can create similar frameworks. She is increasingly invited to speak and collaborate in institutional design but is hesitant to try and replicate UConn’s experience exactly as she realizes that each institution is different. She thus works through the university’s PCCSR, WRC, FLA, and other peak associations to provide general principles for guidance – several steps removed from the actual implementation at the firm level. Those associations, in turn, translate such principles into practice vis a vis vendors and other business partners.

Hertel has found the engagement productive for her research. Her 2019 book[5] deals with “stakeholder” engagement beyond the factory floor – something she became aware through this engagement. Most previous studies had focused either on shopfloor dynamics or on business management, but not on broader community engagement. Her research in this area is now being picked up by university partners and by business colleagues who are reading the book and passing it along as an example of work that is accessible and compelling.


[1] Elkins, & Hertel, S. (2011). Sweatshirts and Sweatshops: Labor Rights, Student Activism, and the Challenges of Collegiate Apparel Manufacturing. In Human Rights in Our Own Backyard (pp. 7–21). University of Pennsylvania Press. https://doi.org/10.9783/9780812205145.7

[2] Leipziger, D. (2018). "Protecting Rights at the End of the Line: Stakeholder Engagement in Light Manufacturing.", Business and Human Rights Initiative at the University of Connecticut.

[3] Fearney, K. (2013). Vendor code of conduct: Policies & procedures. Policies Procedures. Retrieved January 24, 2022, from https://policy.uconn.edu/2013/02/12/vendor-code-of-conduct/

[4] Reitz, Stephanie (2021). UConn wins global recognition for ethical supply chain efforts. UConn Today. Retrieved January 24, 2022, from https://today.uconn.edu/2021/05/uconn-wins-global-recognition-for-ethical-supply-chain- efforts/

[5] Hertel, Shareen (2019). Tethered Fates: Companies, Communities, and Rights at Stake. Oxford University Press. https://global.oup.com/academic/product/tethered-fates-9780190903848?cc=us&lang=en&

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