Several clothing companies which are included in the NUS?s discount scheme are accused of using cotton produced by child labourers in their clothes. This is in direct contrast to the NUS's stand on child labour, and a blatant disregard of the aims of some of the organisations that the NUS is affiliated to.
Currently, the clothing chain Matalan, and Arcadia, the holding company for Burton and Topshop, offer a student discount when an NUS Extra card is shown. An undercover investigation by the BBC has found teams of school children in Uzbekistan slaving in the fields, producing cotton which eventually ends up in British clothes shops. It is estimated that over 450,000 children are forced out of schools each year to work on the harvest.
The NUS are investigating the situation, but were quick to distance themselves from any wrong doing. They use a company called Ethical Investment Research Service (Eiris) to screen the companies they work with. Eiris put the onus back on the NUS, claiming that they have "a list of about 60 or 70 ethical criteria, and it is up to the client to make a decision on the information we supply them with". The NUS responded by saying they are reviewing the situation, and hope to resolve it.
This revelation may undermine the NUS's credibility, at a time when they are seeking reform. Its website heavily promotes its ethical standards, and it is aware of the role it can play in positive change. The Guardian has reported that Mick Duncan, Secretary of NoSweat, said: "It's pretty disappointing the NUS promotes schemes with Topman and Matalan. Big organisations, like the NUS, can and should use their muscle". The NUS is an affiliate of NoSweat, an organisation which campaigns against sweatshops and child labour.
It could be said that this situation was bound to trip up the NUS sooner or later - by taking an ethical stance, and yet still cater for all UK students, it was setting itself up for a clash of cultures. The NUS Extra card is vital to the financial viability of the NUS so it must promise discounts with major high street retailers; sadly the ethical conduct of these retailers has been questioned time and again. Cheap clothing, after all, has to come at a cost somewhere.