Last Friday, 39 students attended a 5k race hosted by retailer Abercrombie & Fitch to distribute literature protesting the company’s ecological footprint. Members of Environmental Campus Organization (ECO) and Divest Kenyon went to the company’s Columbus headquarters as a part of the Rainforest Action Network’s (RAN) campaign to reduce the amount of unsustainable rayon and viscose used in clothing.
Over the summer, RAN employee Ethan Nuss contacted Matt Meyers ’17, an ECO leader, about the possibility of students participating in the race, a fundraiser for the charitable organization Serious Fun. RAN paid for the activists to enter the event and for those who wished to run the race. With the goal of starting a conversation, the students, calling their group #TeamRainforest, passed out stickers and postcards, in addition to holding banners.
As for the second goal, which was raising awareness among employees: “I believe there wasn’t a single person who was at that event today who doesn’t know what #TeamRainforest is,” Morgan said.
Meyers was excited about the method RAN had chosen. “I don’t really consider this to be protesting — I kind of consider it to be more community service,” he said.
Abercrombie & Fitch uses viscose and rayon, which are made from trees, to make some of its clothing, according to RAN Senior Forest Campaigner Bria Morgan. A lack of transparency in the supply chain obscures the source of the trees, as well as the impact the industry has on local communities and environments. Abercrombie & Fitch – unlike over 65 other companies, such as Ralph Lauren – does not have a policy in place ensuring that their fabrics are not made in unsustainable ways, according to Morgan.
Before the event began, Abercrombie & Fitch reached out to RAN expressing interest in developing a policy to ensure sustainable sourcing.
On the day of the protest, the group carpooled to Abercrombie & Fitch’s sprawling suburban headquarters, where they met another group of protesters from Ohio State University.
The headquarters featured a fenced-in entertaining area and the pavement where the runners gathered before setting off down a winding road. Spectators and A&F volunteers cheered them on, while security stood in different locations along the path.
Morgan and Nuss greeted the activists and explained how to interact peacefully with the Columbus Police and Abercrombie & Fitch security, who shared the task of providing security at the event.
Before the event began, a member of security told #TeamRainforest to stop handing out their pamphlets until the run began. During the race, activists were allowed to distribute their materials, as long as those not registered for the run remained on the sidelines and did not enter the winding street that served as the race track.
The students split into teams. One group ran the race while handing out RAN’s materials. Those who chose not to run initiated conversations with spectators or held banners with the slogan “Is A&F with #TeamRainforest???”
Interactions with the race’s security guards weren’t always positive. Dixon, who campaigned in several areas of the campus felt that a high ranking officer invaded her personal space when telling her to leave an area that was not associated with the race.
“Security wasn’t sure what to expect and was a little harsher than necessary towards our activists,” Morgan said. “Our activists were incredibly peaceful … and didn’t interrupt any part of Abercrombie & Fitch’s effort to do their fundraising run.”
Morgan thought the protest met the goals of pressuring the Abercrombie & Fitch executives to develop a sustainable sourcing policy and to raise awareness among the staff and their family and friends.
After the event, Kenyon students were tired, but felt they had made a huge impact.
“I had a really great experience,” Grayson Ponti ’17 said. “It was amazing that so many people took part in #TeamRainforest. It’s a very important cause, and it means a lot to me that people were willing to give up their time and effort to come out here.”
Meyers was pleased with the event.
“I’m excited about where the future may bring us,” he said. “We’ve had like 30 students sign up to come with us, so this means that people are interested in participating in protests like this … there’s big possibilities for the future.”