'U' apparel line looks to stress ethical production

BY SARA BOBOLTZ
Daily Staff Reporter
Published November 30, 2010

Students in the market for a new Michigan sweatshirt may take several factors into consideration: blue or maize, fitted or loose, hooded or crewneck. But at least one store on campus has introduced another option to think about, urging customers to buy ethical University clothing the same way they might “buy organic”.

New collegiate apparel label Alta Gracia, named for the Dominican factory where the clothing is constructed, is now available at the Barnes & Noble College Bookstore in the Michigan Union. The label claims to be the first of its kind because workers at the Alta Gracia factory earn a living wage — the equivalent of $115 per week — instead of the legally required minimum wage, which is $34 per week in the Dominican Republic.

The living wage arrangement is the result of negotiations between the factory’s management and its workers’ union. Officials at Knights Apparel, which operates the factory, say they maintain a strong relationship with the workers’ union to foster a comfortable and humane environment for employees.

Knights Apparel operates a number of other factories, but is operating Alta Gracia using this experimental business model in hopes that the company and other apparel manufacturers can learn from the model.

As of now, the Barnes & Noble College Bookstore is the only store on campus that sells Alta Gracia apparel. Karen Discala, spokeswoman for Barnes & Noble College Bookstores, said the Alta Gracia line of apparel received a “tremendous amount of enthusiasm” from students since the stores began selling the products in September.

Discala said the stores priced the apparel in line with other similar items, so as not to pass on much of the increased labor costs to consumers.

Rishi Narayan, co-owner of Underground Printing and Moe Sport Shops, which has stores in a variety of locations near campus, said that because selling Alta Gracia apparel in their stores would require negotiations with Knights Apparel, the owners would only consider selling the merchandise if more students began asking about the origins of clothing sold in the store.

“The trend is more towards the ‘being environmental’ aspect of clothing and the sustainability,” Narayan said, adding that ethical manufacturing “hasn’t been the focus of a lot of questions.”

At an event organized by University Students Against Sweatshops last Tuesday at the Ginsberg Center, an employee from the Alta Gracia factory, Yenny Perez, talked about how her experience with the factory’s new management compares with the old. The factory was previously operated by a Korean-owned company, BJ&B, and manufactured products for Nike and Reebok until halting operations in 2007.

In translated Spanish, Perez said that conditions at the BJ&J-owned factory were “very harsh."

“If a higher-up or a manager ever thought we weren’t doing our work correctly, they would take all of our work and throw it to the floor,” Perez said.

She explained that verbal harassment was very common and workers were seldom given permission for sick leave, or to take time off to care for a sick child.

And after one attempt to organize a union, she said managers became “unreasonably suspicious of any small crowd of workers just talking” at the factory.

Since the town’s economy depended on the factory, Perez said that when BJ&B closed it, citing competition overseas, “there was nothing to do.” Many residents relocated in search of employment, but with the reopening of the factory under Knights Apparel, there is hope that the community will grow, Perez said.

The workers are “very excited” to be part of “a factory that will serve as an example for all others,” Perez said. “Every worker that is in that factory now is just another benefit to the whole community,” she added.

Students active in the issue expressed an interest in the label, saying they would likely buy clothing advertised as ethically made.

LSA junior Michaela Goralski, a member of SOLE, said that some “don’t think college students will buy (the Alta Gracia apparel) if it’s a couple dollars more.” However, she thinks the brand’s ideals will speak to student consumers.

“Alta Gracia is a way of showing that students care about this, they will purchase the apparel and (the factory) will be sustainable,” Goralski said.

Third-year law student Sarah Kanter, who serves on the President’s Advisory Committee on Labor Standards and Human Rights at the University, echoed Goralski’s sentiments on interest in ethical apparel.

“The University has such buying power,” Kanter said. “I think it’s really important, that’s something we care about — that we don’t just care about the cost.”

Since 1999, the University has required each of its licensees to sign a code of conduct, which aims to ensure that workers producing apparel and other merchandise with the University’s name or insignia are treated fairly.

Among its provisions, the code of conduct states that licensees must “respect the right of employees to freedom of association and collective bargaining,” and ensure that “net compensation is at least sufficient to meet the worker's basic needs.”

Additionally, the University requires all of its licensees to be members of the Fair Labor Association, a monitoring association that receives funding by the companies it monitors. The University itself is affiliated with the FLA and also the Worker Rights Consortium, an independent monitoring organization.

When a complaint of a potential breach of the code of conduct occurs, these organizations investigate the situation and issue a report, which University officials use in deciding how to proceed.

But even with this system in place, some believe the University and others like it are not doing enough to ensure licensees produce merchandise ethically. In February 2009, the University ended its relationship with Russel Corp. after multiple allegations that the apparel manufacturer closed a Honduras plant in 2007 when workers tried to unionize.

“Because we have so many factories,” Goralski said, “it’s impossible to monitor whether each factory is indeed complying with our code of conduct — it’s just infeasible to monitor everything.”

The WRC is currently advocating for a change in the way all university apparel is produced. The organization wishes to set up a Designated Suppliers Program, which would require member universities to source apparel through a set of a few hundred approved factories in order to ensure ethical manufacturing.

Public Policy graduate student Charles Clark, who is a member of the President’s Advisory Committee on Labor Standards and Human Rights, said that though some University licensees produce clothing in ethical conditions, the Alta Gracia label calls attention to the greater issue of ethical manufacturing.

“There could be the implication,” Clark said, “that people who don’t have the (Alta Gracia) label are not treating the workers as well. But I feel that it’s a good initiative anyway — particularly on the wages paid.”