One year after its founding, fair-labor college clothing company Alta Gracia, which sells apparel on campus, is continuing its mission to provide higher-paying wages to its employees and more jobs to a community in the Dominican Republic, where the company’s factory is located.
Alta Gracia Founder Joe Bozich, also the CEO of Knights Apparel, said in a conference call last night that the company pays its workers a living wage — approximately 340 percent more than required by Dominican Republic law — which allows the factory’s workers to build their own homes and support their families. The company also allows the employees to unionize. However, the company has not yet been able to break even, according to Donnie Hodge, COO of Knights Apparel and Alta Gracia.
“We did not intend it to be a non-profit, but it has (been) so far,” Hodge said.
Despite the company’s low profits, Hodge said there is a strong demand for the fair-labor produced clothing.
“We hear the students say they want the opportunity to support a brand,” Hodge said. “We’ve given them the opportunity.”
Barnes & Noble bookstore in the Michigan Union is the only store on campus to carry Alta Gracia apparel. In a November 30, 2010 article in The Michigan Daily, Rishi Narayan, co-owner of Underground Printing and Moe Sports Shops, said he doesn’t sell Alta Gracia clothing because customers haven’t asked him to carry apparel that is made under fair-labor conditions.
“The trend is more towards the ‘being environmental’ aspect of clothing and the sustainability,” Narayan said at the time.
Scott Nova, executive director of the Workers Rights Consortium — a labor rights watchdog that reports to more than 175 colleges and universities in the United States including the University of Michigan — was also on the conference call last night. He said that stores have few excuses for not carrying the Alta Gracia clothing line, which he noted is the only collegiate apparel company marked with a Worker Rights Consortium certification tag.
“There’s no question in my mind that they can make room for this unique product that is demonstrating respect for the moral values of universities in a way that no other product on their shelves is doing,” Nova said. “So if a store is saying that they’re not carrying the product because consumers haven’t come to clamor for it, in my view as a labor rights advocate, that’s a cop-out.”
When asked what Alta Gracia is doing to promote the clothing line to students, Bozich said the company has reached out to university administrators and students.
“We have a social media campaign, we have an internship program … I think the key is just making people aware that A, it’s available (and) B, why it’s unique and different,” Bozich said.
Despite the company’s difficulties in making a profit, its workers say Alta Gracia has changed their community.
Speaking through a translator, Maritza Vargas, the leader of Alta Gracia’s union and an employee at the factory, said workers at the company are reaping the benefits of a living wage that allows them to support their families, build homes and further their educations. The benefits have also trickled down to the members of their families, who can have health insurance and other benefits.
“Our children have been able to dream of getting a university education,” Vargas said. “We feel that we can provide our kids with the childhood they deserve.”