From the Chronicle of Higher Education, August 2, 2002, p. B16,
(accessible only to Chronicle subscribers)

Is Your College Ready to Tackle More Than Sweatshops?

By Peter Suber

If your college discovered that its sweatshirts were made in sweatshops by workers paid below the minimum wage, it would probably yank the contract immediately and find a new vendor. But what if your heating-oil supplier pollutes? What if your temp agency discriminates against Mexican-American employees?

Any higher-education institution that objects on principle to sweatshops should not overlook vendors who are guilty of similar or even more egregious misdeeds. To make their visions of social responsibility more consistent and effective, colleges should articulate general policies on vendor conduct.

My college just undertook that task, and it was much more enlightening than I had dared hope and much less divisive than I had feared. At first, the complex ways that a buyer can be complicit in its vendor's misconduct seemed infinite. But ultimately, we found that, because we were willing to compromise on critical issues and draw lines, we were able to construct a workable policy in a reasonable time.

Our approach is undoubtedly peculiar to our history and culture, our Quaker affiliation, our long experience under an investment policy that allows us to put social responsibility ahead of financial return, the particular ethics and politics of our administrators and faculty members, and our rural setting -- which limits the number of vendors who bid for our business. But our experience did help us identify 15 general questions that other institutions may want to ask as they develop or review their own policies:

Are you ready for a vendor policy? A vendor policy will cost the institution. Delineating the types of misconduct that will require the college to act restricts its freedom. The institution won't be able to do business with certain vendors, which means it won't always be able to buy the most useful product or accept the lowest bid. Are you ready to pay higher prices to avoid complicity in the conduct you deplore?

Is purity attainable? Complete purity, or freedom from complicity, would require complete isolation and self-sufficiency. Making hard decisions about how impure is too impure is by far the thorniest aspect of developing a vendor policy. If anyone who has been asked to help develop the policy wants to hold out for purity, work this issue out early in the process.

How complex a policy can be enforceable? Because the central question of acceptable impurity is complex, any acceptable policy will have to be equally complex. At the same time, your policy can't be too complicated to enforce, or you might as well not even develop one. You must make line-drawing decisions that simplify enough to permit enforceable rules, but don't oversimplify so much that they conceal or create injustices.

Will you scrutinize all vendors? Tracking and evaluating vendor conduct takes time and money. Can you afford to pay those costs for every vendor that does business, or is bidding to do business, with your institution? If not, you might limit the policy to major vendors, as defined by a certain dollar figure or a percentage of your annual procurement budget. (We decided that a major vendor is one on which we spend 1 percent or more of our procurement budget annually.) That also reduces the number of people who have to understand and enforce the policy. Must all employees who drive a company car investigate every service station where they buy gas?

Should vendors do good or avoid doing harm, or both? Are vendors who don't pollute eligible for contracts with your institution? Or must they also donate some profits to the Sierra Club? If your college requires them not only to avoid doing harm but also to do good, the policy will have to define what is sufficiently evil as well as what is sufficiently good. Those who carry out the policy will also have to apply both sets of criteria to all bidders. At Earlham we decided to follow the Hippocratic oath: Above all, do no harm.

What is bad, and how bad is too bad? Of all the sins that vendors could commit, which specific ones would make them ineligible for your business? Do you want to enumerate those transgressions or rely on general language? The longer your list, or the more encompassing your language, the more you tie your hands in picking vendors with the right product or price. Can you focus your concerns and still capture the institution's ethical priorities?

Is compliance with the law adequate? A federal court has ruled that discrimination against gays is not discrimination based on sex and therefore is lawful under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. If sex discrimination is on your list of disqualifying sins, must a vendor be found guilty by a court? Or is it enough to sever the relationship if it violates your institution's own standards for its social responsibility? If you want to reserve the right to decide that legal conduct, in itself, is not always good enough, then your policy has to say so and provide some criteria for determining when a company has crossed the line.

What kinds of complicity matter? If a company is guilty of pollution, what kinds of relationship to it constitute unacceptable complicity? When it is your vendor and you subsidize it by sending your money? When the polluter is not your vendor, but your vendor profits from it? When it's not your vendor, but your vendor can influence its actions? If your policy obligates you to act when certain kinds of complicity arise, then it needs to spell out what those are. To leave that unclear, or to wish to avoid even vendors with remote or tenuous connections to wrongdoing, is another way to reach for purity.

What degree of complicity will trigger action? Must the vendor itself be guilty of sex discrimination in order to be ineligible for a contract? (Call this the first layer.) What if the guilty party is not the vendor but the vendor's parent company or one of its major investors? (This is the second layer.) What if it is the vendor's parent company's investor, or the vendor's vendor's vendor? (This is the third layer.) Can you draw a line beyond which your economic support is impossible to monitor or too indirect to require a response?

At Earlham, we will respond if the vendor is owned one-third or more by a company or individual directly engaged in harm, or if the vendor acquires one-third or more of its goods and services from another vendor directly engaged in harm. But we won't respond to parties two layers or more beyond the original vendor.

What level of vendor involvement matters? I've been using the term "complicity" to describe your involvement in someone else's sin. But the vendor can be involved in the sin to varying degrees as well. If one of the vendor's plants pollutes the air, does it matter whether the plant accounts for 5 percent or 50 percent of the vendor's profits? How do you determine which levels of involvement are negligible? In our case, we determined that a vendor "substantially benefits from harm" when it makes one-third or more of its revenues from harm or has a wholly owned subsidiary directly engaged in harm.

What if all bidders are unacceptable? You can refuse to do business with any of them, but that may be difficult if they are food services or electric utilities. If you cannot produce such goods yourself, or do without them, then you have to pick the least offensive vendor. It is not a rationalization, but a simple truth, that one of your institution's ethical responsibilities is its own health.

How will you respond to unacceptable vendors? Refusing to do business with a vendor is just one option. Some sins are graver than others, and others are more recent or frequently repeated, so you will want some flexibility to take such differences into account. What if negotiation could lead the vendor to stop its unethical practice, or to cut ties with the guilty party? What if the vendor has publicly promised to divest itself of the offending subsidiary but needs time to find a buyer?

Will the institution's responses always be obligatory? When a vendor violates the institution's principles, must the institution always take action? Or does the policy recognize cases in which the institution may, but need not, respond? At Earlham, we decided that violations by major vendors triggered an obligatory response. Those responsible for hiring minor vendors are free to follow their conscience in deciding whether or not a violation is serious enough to require action.

How will you monitor compliance? How will you learn whether a long-term vendor in a far-flung facility or a bidder with whom you've not done business meets your criteria? Again, you will have to invest financial and human resources in monitoring and carrying out your policy. Outside companies will monitor some issues, like pollution and child labor, for you -- but they can also be costly.

How will you resolve controversies? If someone accuses the lawn-chemical service of violating your policy, who will decide the case? Most institutions will not already have in place judicial rules or committees prepared to handle vendor cases. For example, the adjudicating body must be ready to do extensive fact-finding from off-campus sources. Because vendor controversies can be divisive, the committee should have the trust of all institutional constituents.

These questions are not easy to answer. One reason is that complicity presents many matters of degree, while enforceable policies require clear lines.

Another is that even broad principles of ethics and social policy will rarely cover every fine point and individual case.

However, the exercise of trying to reach clarity on these issues will not only illuminate future controversies, but also lead the institution to deep self-examination. A colleague once said that the easiest way to force a college to rethink its program is to change its academic calendar. The easiest way to force an institution to rethink its vision of social responsibility, and its priorities in daily decisions, is to draft a vendor policy.


Peter Suber is a professor of philosophy at Earlham College. The college's vendor policy can be found at

Copyright 2002, Chronicle of Higher Education.

Ribbon] Peter Suber, Department of Philosophy, Earlham College, Richmond, Indiana, 47374, U.S.A.