The Occidental College bookstore has begun carrying T-shirts from Alta Gracia, a new sweat-free clothing line by Knights Apparel.
The Spartanburg, S.C.-based collegiate apparel company--the largest in the United States--pays the Alta Gracia factory workers a living wage, provides a safe working environment and freely allows them to unionize.
The bookstore sports a rack of about 40 high-quality black short-sleeve Occidental T-shirts in various sizes with the Alta Gracia label. The $15.95 price tag of the unisex shirts is comparable to those of other T-shirts the store carries, said bookstore director Anne Wolf.
The T-shirts will also soon be sold on the Oxy bookstore website: http://oxybookstore.com/.
"Alta Gracia is a pathway out of poverty. We pay a living wage so that the workers can provide their families with decent food, housing, health care and education," said Joseph Bozich, the CEO of Knights Apparel. "It's good business, too. We're not charging more for our clothing even though we're paying our workers more."
The Occidental bookstore is working with Student Labor Action Coalition, a College student club, to promote the clothing line at Homecoming and Family Weekend and other Oxy events.
"We want to create a display in the Quad about the garment industry and the plight of sweatshop workers in Los Angeles, and show what the Oxy bookstore is doing to help stop labor abuse," said Caitlin Ruppel '13, a member of the student group.
Occidental has long supported factory workers' rights--the College is an affiliate of the Workers Rights Consortium, an independent labor rights watchdog that monitors working conditions in factories worldwide. Peter Dreier, E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics, sits on the organization's advisory board.
The Alta Gracia line has been years in the making, Dreier said. While all of Oxy's clothing suppliers and other vendors agree to comply with the College's manufacturing code of conduct, which asks that companies pay a fair wage and comply with other basic workers' rights, the guidelines cannot be enforced systematically. And while the Workers Rights Consortium monitors factories around the world, it cannot investigate all of them.
The Alta Gracia line is manufactured by about 125 workers in Villa Altagracia ("exalted grace" in Spanish), a tiny poverty-ridden village in the Dominican Republic. The label is named after the village as well as for the Virgin of Altagracia, the patron saint of Dominicans.
What makes Knights Apparel unique is that it has gone on record to institute good working conditions and develop a model for other collegiate apparel companies, Dreier said. The Workers Rights Consortium drafted Alta Gracia's labor standards, recommended that Knights Apparel pay its workers $2.83 an hour--more than three times the Dominican Republic's living wage--and monitors the factory for compliance.
"This is a culmination of more than a decade's worth of activism," Dreier said. "The Workers Rights Consortium asked some major suppliers if they'd be willing to step up and set up a model factory for the college market. And Knights Apparel did."
The New York Times in July wrote about the origins of the new clothing line and the challenges it faces in a competitive market. Knights Apparel's manufacturing cost per Alta Gracia T-shirt is 20 percent more than it would be if the company paid the Dominican Republic's average minimum wage of 85 cents an hour.
"For this business model to work, college communities have to respond," said Bozich of Knights Apparel. "We believe that when students, faculty, and alumni see what Alta Gracia represents, they will."
For more information about the Alta Gracia label, go to: http://altagraciaapparel.com/story.
To read the New York Times story about Alta Gracia and Knights Apparel, go to: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/18/business/global/18shirt.html.