Update: Alta Gracia Apparel

To:Primary Contacts, WRC Affiliate Colleges and Universities
From:Scott Nova
Date:November 18, 2010
Re:Update: Alta Gracia Apparel

I write to update you on the launch of the new Alta Gracia apparel brand and the WRC’s ongoing work on this ground-breaking project.

As you know, Knights Apparel launched the Alta Gracia brand this year after two years of work with the WRC, worker representatives, student activists, NGOs, and university and bookstore officials to bring the initiative to fruition. The products are being made at a factory in the Dominican Republic where workers are paid a living wage (which was calculated by the WRC and is 340% of the local minimum wage) and have been able to exercise their right to form a union without management interference.

The following are key developments since the opening of the factory and the brand launch:

  • Alta Gracia products are now being carried in campus stores at more than 300 universities, with additional stores due to receive products by the end of the calendar year. A list of stores carrying Alta Gracia apparel is available on the brand’s website. 

  • There is a great emphasis in the marketing of the product on the significance of the labor standards. This is evident in product labeling, in-store promotion, advertising, social marketing and every other aspect of the marketing effort. To our knowledge, the robust emphasis on labor rights issues that is at the heart of Alta Gracia’s marketing goes beyond any previous labor-focused product labeling effort in the United States. Most important, the labor rights representations the brand is making are backed up by an unprecedented commitment to transparency: the WRC has been granted unfettered access to the factory, its records and its managers – allowing us to apply intensive scrutiny to the factory’s actual labor rights performance and verify the validity of the brand’s claims. 
  • The labor rights performance of the factory has been exemplary. The WRC has already reported on the factory’s compliance with its living wage obligations. We will be releasing a monitoring report covering all labor rights compliance issues shortly. We continue to monitor the factory closely, including a rolling program of off-site interviews with workers, weekly or bi-weekly visits to the factory, regular meetings with factory management, regular meetings with the leadership of the factory union, and ongoing review of payroll records and other factory documents. It is fair to say that no factory we are aware of has ever been subjected to this level of ongoing scrutiny by independent labor rights monitors. Since the WRC is allowing the company to place a tag on the products with a statement from the WRC verifying compliance with the labor standards (which, as you know, is a first for us), we feel this intensive scrutiny is appropriate. 
  • The living wage paid at the factory has had a swift and profound impact on the lives of workers and their families, including improved nutrition, particularly for workers’ children; repairs and upgrades to the sub-standard housing in which most workers previously lived; and the reduction of long-standing and debilitating debts that most workers had incurred in their efforts to keep their heads above water during periods of unemployment and when previously employed at low-wage factories. These impacts are being documented through multiple academic studies, including one recently released by Georgetown University (see below). 
  • Workers have formed a union at the facility. During this process of union formation, factory management did not put any pressure on workers nor interfere in any way in the process. This is particularly heartening because the closure of the factory that used to occupy Alta Gracia’s building, the BJ&B cap production facility, meant the dissolution of a union that workers had achieved through many years of effort – and under the protection of university codes of conduct. Many of the workers at Alta Gracia are former BJ&B employees and, in a very real sense, the formation of the Alta Gracia union represents the continuation of labor rights efforts by members of the community that date back almost fifteen years. 
  • The factory has also quickly established itself as a model in terms of health and safety practices. Factory management and the union have worked closely with the Maquiladora Health and Safety Support Network, a group of occupational safety and health professionals in the US who have provided state of the art guidance to the facility. 
  • A number of academic studies of the initiative are underway: to document the impact of the living wage on workers, their families and the community; to examine the performance of the factory from a business standpoint; and to assess consumer responses to the labor-focused marketing of the product. These various research projects are being carried out by faculty and researchers from several universities in the United States and the Dominican Republic, including: Georgetown University, the University of California-Berkeley, Harvard University, the Autonomous University of Santo Domingo and the Technological Institute of Santo Domingo. 
  • One study of the Alta Gracia initiative has already been published. The leader of the study is Dr. John Kline, Professor of International Business Diplomacy at the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown and former Director of International Economic Policy at the National Association of Manufacturers. Professor Kline’s study, titled “Alta Gracia: Branding Decent Work Conditions,” and carried out with the support of Georgetown’s Kalmanovitz Initiative, looks at the initial impact of the project on workers and their families and on the economic life of the surrounding community. This very useful analysis can be viewed here. We also have bound copies of the study. If you would like a copy, please email Theresa Haas.
  • The project has garnered substantial media attention, beginning with the extensive coverage provided by the New York Times. Campus press coverage has been voluminous, with stories so far in more than 60 campus papers and many others in the works. The media coverage has focused on the labor rights breakthroughs at the heart of the project and the important role of universities and university stores in making the project possible. (Indeed, the support of the project’s earliest retail backers – the Duke University stores, and Barnes & Noble and Follett – was crucial to getting the initiative off the ground).   
  • In a tour of campuses organized by USAS, which has provided important support for the project, workers from the facility are visiting universities and colleges this month in many states.

From our perspective at the WRC, this project has already been an extraordinary success – changing the lives of the factory’s workers and their families, pioneering a different and more humane model of apparel production, and enabling the university community to take a major step forward in its labor rights efforts. We remain deeply impressed with the commitment and efforts of Knights Apparel and laud the vision they have shown in advancing a project that represents a quantum leap for labor standards in the industry. 

I cannot emphasize enough the transformative effects of the payment of a living wage. It means the difference between a life of poverty and diminished prospects for workers and their children and the opportunity for workers to provide their families with a decent standard of living and their children the chance to realize their potential. The sea change that living wage makes possible, and the factory’s demonstrated commitment to treat workers with genuine respect and welcome their union, are the reasons why we believe this project is so crucial and why it merits the WRC’s active involvement and a high level of support from the university community. In the fifteen-year history of codes of conduct and monitoring programs – despite hundreds of thousands of factory audits and a vast proliferation of corporate social responsibility programs – the simple fact is that no major apparel brand has ever done what Knights Apparel is doing at the Alta Gracia factory. The project would never have happened without the pioneering labor rights work of student activists and the decision of universities and colleges to become leaders on the issue of labor rights in the global apparel industry – and only with the university community’s continued strong support can the project continue to thrive and help open the door to broader change.

We will continue to keep you posted on the project’s development, its impact on workers and their families, and the WRC’s monitoring work. Additional information on our Alta Gracia-related work can be found on the WRC website.

Please let us know if you have any questions or thoughts about this update.



Examples of Campus Media Coverage re Alta Gracia

Clothing Line New to USC: Alta Gracia Pays Foreign Workers ‘Living Wage,'” The University of South Carolina Daily Gamecock

Socially Conscious UW Apparel Available at University Book Store,” University of Wisconsin – Madison News

Duke Apparel Supplier Pays Ethical Wages,” The Duke Chronicle

Standards Rise for Apparel,” The Georgetown Hoya

UMass A Part of New Ethical Apparel Approach,” University of Massachusetts-Amherst Daily Collegian

Cornell Brings Sweatshop-Free Clothes to Campus,” The Cornell Daily Sun

Living Wage College Gear Arrives at Tulane,” The Tulane Hullabaloo

Occidental Colleges Carries Sweat-Free Alta Gracia Clothing,” Occidental College News

Scott Nova 
Worker Rights Consortium 
5 Thomas Circle NW 
Washington DC 20005 
ph 202 387 4884 
fax 202 387 3292 
[email protected]