By: Kenneth Best, UConn Communications
When a white paper was issued earlier this year from a recent UConn conference addressing how to protect human rights and promote social and environmental sustainability in the light manufacturing sector, the document became the most recent addition to resources that help the 200 students pursuing either major or minor studies in human rights.
One of the classes these students can take is an interdisciplinary class, Assessment for Human Rights & Sustainability. Over the past four years, students in the class have examined how companies assess their global supply chains to ensure designs and business practices that promote positive social and economic development, while minimizing the environmental impact on the communities where they make products.
The class was developed by Shareen Hertel, an associate professor of political science with a joint appointment in the Human Rights Institute, and former UConn engineering professor Allison MacKay, who now is a professor and chair of civil, environmental, and geodetic engineering at Ohio State University. They continue to co-teach the class, which is offered again this semester, via live simulcast for students both in Storrs and in Columbus, Ohio.
Hertel says the idea for the class resulted from the interest she and MacKay shared in looking at how to assess the social and environmental sustainability of most products that people use.
“Allison and I were always looking for ways to collaborate,” she says. “Because I research in the area of supply chain management – Where do your shoes come from? Your morning cocoa? – and Allison works on fate of contaminants – How polluted is the world and how long will that pollution hang around? – we realized that we had an extraordinary area of mutual interest, which was looking at how we would assess social and environmental sustainability for the products that we use. The goal was to equip students to assess the readiness of companies to comply with both legal requirements and voluntary standards that go above and beyond what the law requires.”
As an example of the benefits of bringing social sciences and engineering experts together for this purpose, Hertel says a company such as the athletic footwear and apparel manufacturer Reebok might send a mixed skills audit team to look at the fabrication of soccer balls in Pakistan and find child labor in that supply chain. The engineer on the team is not going to know what to do with that child, but the social scientist will, she says. Or if contaminants are found in the waste stream, it will be a challenge for the social scientist to measure the actual level of contamination, but the engineer will know what to do.