April 23, 2010 | Myrna Anderson

Hours after she found out she had been elected president of the Calvin student body, Abbie Belford was sitting behind a table in Johnny’s, urging her peers to boycott America Apparel.

Hours after she found out she had been elected president of the Calvin student body, Abbie Belford was sitting behind a table in Johnny’s, urging her peers to boycott American Apparel.

“Hey, do you want to sign our petition?” she called to a student walking by. “It’s against American Apparel’s advertising techniques. If you sign this, you’re saying you won’t buy from them.” Students paused, listened and signed.

Getting a bad message

Belford, a 21-year old junior from Batavia, Ill., is trying to get the purveyor of t-shirts and other clothing to stop using images of partially unclad people in sexually suggestive positions in its marketing materials—and particularly on its website. She says the company’s messaging is pornographic.

“I see this as an easy way for students to get addicted to porn,” Belford said. She first learned about a problem while talking with an orientation intern about t-shirts. Because of the company’s fair trade practices, Belford advised the student to buy from American Apparel. “Have you seen their website?” the student responded.

Belford went surfing. “I was just floored …,” she said. “I was just appalled that departments in the college are supporting American Apparel.” (The Calvin Campus Store, the orientation program and the residence halls are a few of the campus entities that patronize the company.)

Getting the word out

She went to work. Belford wrote an e-mail to the leaders of all student organizations, asking them to take up the boycott within their memberships. Through that e-mail Belford gained a partner in Hannah Whyte and the student group Whyte co-leads, Democracy Matters. Belford also wrote an article about the American Apparel issue for Chimes, Calvin’s student newspaper, and appeared with Whyte on local TV to talk about the boycott.

“She is somebody who is so passionate. She just kind of goes after things and sees what she wants and does it,” said student activities coordinator Erin O’Connor.

What Belford and White want in this case is for the entire Calvin community to sign petitions not to buy from American Apparel. They are also encouraging students and others to write letters to the company, protesting their advertisting practices. And they're already seeing results. “The website is already in the process of being blocked,” Belford said.

The campus store has also agreed to stop patronizing the company. “We had been made aware of some of their advertising techniques for a while, and we decided to pull the 10 pieces of merchandise we did have on the floor," said campus store manager Tom VanWingerden. "We commend Abbie and Hannah and the student senate in their efforts.” Both letters and petitions will be sent to American Apparel on April 30.

Getting the signatures

On Friday, April 16, Belford had separate petitions on the table for both students and student organizations. When one signer, a resident of Calvin’s Grassroots Floor, reminded her that residence hall floors have their own t-shirts, Belford said she’d create a third petition.

Another would-be signer mock-protested “But they’re so darn trendy!” about American Apparel’s clothes. “Oh, I know,” Belford agreed. “Their clothing is great. Their t-shirts are all great quality. They’re made in the U.S.” The student laughed and signed.

The newly elected president, an interdisciplinary pre-architecture major, enjoyed a celebratory high-five with a supporter. “I’m so excited,” she said, and the two chatted about election results. A group of students was checking out the petitions: “We can sign this,” said one, “but what we really have to do is change people’s hearts.”

“I know,” said Belford. “We’re going to try to do both.”

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