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Alta Gracia factory produces fair-trade clothing

For years, college student activists have pressured their schools to make sure clothing with college logos is sweatshop-free. Now, they have another choice: fair-trade clothing manufactured in the Dominican Republic by Alta Gracia.

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"Fairness is not a marketing label you can buy, slap on a product, and call it good," explained Eliza Kopetchne, a sophomore at Northeastern University and an activist with the United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) affiliate on her campus. Kopetchne visited the Alta Gracia factory in January with a delegation led by Fair World Project. "Real fairness is a living, breathing power dynamic – an ongoing effort that is played out every day in the treatment of workers in a workplace. Consumers should support workers' own voices and aspirations for fairness rather than trusting companies to do so. This is why USAS has always stood beside democratic local unions."

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Paralleled by pressure from USAS, WRC's investigations have forced many brands to improve conditions at some factories making clothing for the college market. In 2009 and 2010, USAS achieved unprecedented victories with two of the largest companies—Russell and Nike—by pressuring their schools and even retailers to cut contracts with brands. This student-led boycott cost the corporations millions in sales until they came into compliance with the campus' codes of conduct.

This hard-won progress is promising. But it has not been easy. "This is an industry obsessed with pennies," says Scott Nova, WRC's executive director. "We've had tremendous resistance from the big labels."

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USAS's victories in their campaigns against Russell and Nike suggested that college students were ready to throw their weight behind a living-wage union-made option in their purchases as well as their actions. If students were prepared to fight against brands that abused workers' rights, wouldn't they rally behind brands that respected them? That's how the idea for the Alta Gracia brand started.

For years, USAS refused to support companies claiming to make "sweatshop free" clothing because they couldn't be sure the companies would keep their commitment. Today, however, USAS, as well as the WRC, have embraced Alta Gracia as a model that proves that socially responsible clothing production is not only possible but profitable.

Alta Gracia is the first apparel company in the college market to work closely with unionized employees and pay them a living wage. It is an unusual collaboration between student, labor, and human rights activists and Knights Apparel, the nation's leading producer of college clothing, which beats Nike and Adidas in the $4 billion collegiate market.

Two key players in the creation of Alta Gracia were Joe Bozich, the CEO of Knights Apparel, and Donnie Hodge, the company president. "We started thinking that we wanted to do something more important with our business than worry just about winning market share," Bozich explained in an interview.

Student activists and labor experts began conversations with Knights executives about whether the economics of clothing production allowed for "the perfect factory," one that could produce well-made items in a safe workplace and pay workers decent wages and benefits. Worker abuse surfaces on factory floors, but it is rooted in the dynamics of the global apparel industry, in which so-called manufacturers—in reality, design and marketing firms such as Nike—outsource the fabrication of clothing to independent contractors worldwide. In this labor-intensive industry where capital requirements are minimal, it is relatively easy to open a clothing factory. This has led to a global race to the bottom: There is always someplace where clothing can be made still more cheaply. Today more than 90 percent of the clothing in U.S. retail stores is imported.

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