Drew Wolf and Larry Klebanoff like to say that their clothing is made with love. It might seem a glib marketing cliché in any other context, but becomes definitively more credible when you learn that the founders of League Collegiate Outfitters are describing an apparel manufacturing business that also provides child care, education programs, breakfast and lunch, and housing assistance for its employees. “We started League Collegiate Outfitters for two reasons,” explains Wolf in a promotional video. “One, definitely a passion for clothing in the Ivy League style — and two, we wanted a company to do good in the world.”
It’s an extraordinary measure by most standards and is almost unthinkable in an industry segment better known for sweatshops, child workers and low standards of labor care. It also goes a long way in understanding the greater significance of how League became such a valued clothing supplier for Barnes & Noble College.
When Barnes & Noble College began developing their propriety Red Shirt clothing brand, they were looking for a supplier who could produce a fashionable product, comparable to retailers such as American Eagle, Aéropostale or Abercrombie & Fitch, yet at a price point accessible for the student customer. League Collegiate Outfitters seem to check all of those boxes, as Joel Friedman, Vice President General Merchandise, explains. “Initially, all we knew was that they were sourcing in Central America, so they would be able to provide good speed to market — and they already had credentials in the youth fashion market, so we thought they’d be ideal in helping us position Red Shirt,” he says.
But that relationship evolved as Barnes & Noble College began to understand more about League’s operations and their mission. “The more we worked together, we came to appreciate their socially conscious approach at a local level,” Friedman says. It was an approach which meant paying workers above local minimum wage, providing day care, so mothers could have a job without worrying about their children’s safety, and subsidizing employees’ breakfasts and lunches. “When we put all that together, we realized we had a really proud story for our brand, and that it would not just be the product of a business relationship created to strictly make money,” he says.
For Friedman, the relationship with League went beyond a standard Barnes & Noble College has established with supplier partners such as Alta Gracia Apparel, where job creation, living wages, benefits and education for workers and their families are important elements in the business relationship.
While social responsibility is a popular ideal with the student population, Friedman points to a dichotomy in cause marketing: research illustrates that while students won’t pay a premium for apparel with a more socially desirable origin, when all other factors are equal, they will respond to the label with a cause. It’s perhaps the reason why League markets their products in a way that is neither pious nor evangelical – it’s current, stylish, hip and gives the customer a good value. If there’s one thing that particularly resonates with students, it’s trend and value. Feeling good about the origin of their clothing can also be an added bonus.
Friedman, who spent his early career sourcing products from all over the world, understands the vagaries of the supply chain, and also the impact that apparel suppliers and retailers can have. “When you go on site and see 133 people working in the Dominican Republic who can feed their children because of a decision you’ve made, that feels pretty good,” but adds, “and yet, if you realize you’re in a town with 97 percent unemployment, part of you wonders how we can get 250 of those people working.”
Organizations like the Fair Labor Association can help companies navigate the ethical issues of supply chains that are often complex and far-reaching, and Friedman believes companies should have a greater sense of responsibly for the global impact of their brands. “It’s incredibly important that you’re cognizant of these issues, that you’re engaged and can make good decisions,” he says. “At some point, you realize not every decision needs to be about how much money is going to be made. Sometimes you’re going to have to make them just because they need to be the right decisions.”