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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Whether campus bookstores prominently display Alta Gracia apparel makes a big difference. Some managers are reluctant to promote the label because it competes with brands like Nike, which pay universities huge licensing fees for the right to use their names, logos, and mascots on the clothing they produce, mostly in Asian sweatshops.Skip to next paragraph
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But others, like Jim Wilkerson, who runs Duke University's 27 campus stores, have championed the Alta Gracia brand with great success. At Duke's flagship store, Alta Gracia merchandise is prominently displayed and stocked, and a large flat-screen TV plays a video of smiling workers. Such efforts have paid off: Since August 2010, Duke has sold more than $600,000 of Alta Gracia's clothing.
"A t-shirt is a t-shirt – except this one is made with dignified conditions for workers," says Maria Louzon, a University of Maryland student and national coordinator of United Students for Fair Trade.
"Unlike other apparel companies and certifications, Alta Gracia upholds a standard worthy of the term 'Fair Trade'," Louzon elaborated. "That's why USFT has taken Alta Gracia on as one of our national priorities."
So far, it's thriving. Large schools like the universities of Missouri, North Carolina, Washington, and Wisconsin, as well as NYU and UCLA, carry sizable orders of Alta Gracia. With great fanfare, students at Notre Dame selected Alta Gracia as "The Shirt" that fans, alumni, and students wear to the first football game of the year and whose sales proceeds are donated to charity.
If such success builds, says Bozich, "then we can take the next steps, including expanding outside college bookstores and selling our brand to other retailers."
Alta Gracia contracts with Ethix Merch, a distributor of socially responsible merchandise, to sell custom-printed T-shirts to social justice groups, faith communities, workplaces, and others, so everyday consumers can join the effort outside the college arena.
"The only guarantee we have to keep the factory operating in our community, and as a model for the industry, is support from students and other consumers in the US," says Alta Gracia union leader Pablo Tolentino.
Can the Alta Gracia label compete with Nike's swoosh? Are consumers willing to look for the Alta Gracia union label?
If Alta Gracia can make profitable merchandise under humane conditions and sell it at competitive prices, it will challenge the widespread race-to-the-bottom economics of the apparel industry and prove that conscientious consumers can have an impact on humanizing the forces of global capitalism.
• Peter Dreier is the E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor Politics, and chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department, at Occidental College. His book, "The 100 Greatest Americans of the 2oth Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame," was published in July by Nation Books.
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