Author: Sam Ovenshine & Mary Brant
In a move signaling renewed commitment to sustainability on campus, the Occidental College Bookstore has begun offering T-shirts from the Alta Gracia label, a popular sweatshop-free clothing line. The label is sold on 400 of the nation’s most well-known college campuses and is managed by Knights Apparel, the largest supplier of college logo wear in the United States.
The company pays its workers in the Dominican Republic a living wage, which allows employees to afford health care, food, education, comfortable shelter and a means to escape poverty.
Alta Gracia’s namesake is Villa Alta Gracia, a tiny village in the Dominican Republic where the company’s factory is located. The label’s website explains that the Spanish moniker represents a corporate goal. “The name means ‘High Grace’ – we hope we’re getting there,” it states.
The Worker Rights Consortium, an independent labor rights organization, has approved the practices of Alta Gracia by monitoring its Dominican factory and issuing public reports on its adherence to sweatshop-free standards.
Peter Dreier, E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics, is a member of the consortium’s advisory board. He says, “Workers have a union and are treated with dignity.”
Because workers in the Alta Gracia factory earn more than three times the Dominican Republic’s minimum wage, employees on the factory floor are more easily able to provide food for their families, purchase children’s uniforms and textbooks, visit the doctor without financial repercussion, reside in stable cinder block homes and repay debt accrued from years earning the minimum wage.
The Student Labor Action Coalition (SLAC) at Occidental is working to promote the Alta Gracia label on campus.
Caitlin Ruppel (sophomore) heads the coalition’s interaction with the bookstore. She is confident that the Occidental student body will purchase clothing with the label this semester.
“The more Oxy students purchase the Alta Gracia label in the bookstore, the more Alta Gracia clothing the bookstore is able to order,” she said.
Currently, the bookstore offers only unisex, black short-sleeve Occidental T-shirts from the Alta Gracia brand. The price of the shirt ($15.95) is comparable to similar products from other college logo clothing brands. If the shirts prove sufficiently popular with patrons, the bookstore will expand its options and place additional orders for hoodies, sweatshirts and other varieties of T-shirts, according to Dreier.
Eventually, Dreier would like to see the Alta Gracia label spread throughout campus, especially to Oxy-themed clothing sold outside the bookstore.
Clubs, sororities, fraternities and Oxy orientation leaders frequently purchase blank T-shirts for their respective activities. If they instead chose to buy blank Alta Gracia shirts, the college could become a pioneer in promoting living wages abroad.
The addition of the brand to the bookstore’s stock provides Oxy students with the opportunity to support sweat-free labor with their dollars.
“College students and people in general should feel good about the things they buy,” Dreier said.
Dreier feels that there is no comparison between the standard of life for workers under traditional production models and the standard of life for Alta Gracia workers. “The difference is night and day,” he said.
Dreier hopes that “top-down institutional commitment” to the products will allow Oxy to “make a statement about its values.”
In order for Alta Gracia to prevail on campus, the label must be realized as a hip one. “We would like to see the Alta Gracia label become comparable to the [Nike] swoosh,” Dreier said.
Some Oxy students have already expressed interest in visiting the Alta Gracia factory in the Dominican Republic to observe the factory conditions for themselves and understand how the company operates.
Workers at the company’s factory are currently touring the nation’s colleges to explain to students what offering factory workers a living wage means on a personal level. Student promoters would like to see the tour come to Oxy in order to increase student awareness of the label and spur its sales.
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