For decades, the worldwide apparel industry has been dominated by a world of oppressive factories and management taking advantage of their employees. In an effort to keep factory costs low and company profits high, sweatshop laborers work long hours for mere pocket change, receive little (if any) benefits and spend their days in pitifully maintained factories, almost always to the detriment of their health and well-being.
Alta Gracia, the revolutionary apparel factory in the Dominican Republic notable for paying its workers a living wage, is now in its fourth year of production. Even as it finds increasing success in the college market, Alta Gracia has remained an experiment in the apparel world, with many industry experts believing that a unionized, living-wage factory could not sustain itself in the globalized sweatshop industry.
Georgetown professor of international business diplomacy John Kline and professor of managerial ethics Edward Soule recently published “Alta Gracia: Four Years and Counting,” a report on Alta Gracia’s first few years in business and what that means for its continued success.
Thankfully, it’s full of good news: The factory achieved $11 million in retail sales in 2013, and that number is projected to grow to $16 million in 2014. No longer a delicate startup, the factory has built solid success in the collegiate market in a remarkably short time. By many measures, the Alta Gracia business model is not only viable, but superior to current industry standards. Employee turnover is only a tenth of the industry average, workers paid Alta Gracia’s living wage are healthier and more productive and the merchandise is available in more than 400 campus bookstores nationwide.
Of course, Alta Gracia has always been more than just a successful business model. Kline and Soule’s report contains worker profiles, where myriad stories tell of families being able to afford a home for the first time, of workers paying for their children’s college education and of parents spending more with their kids. This is all possible because of the salario digno — a salary with dignity — that allows employees to live full and productive lives. A worker in the factory named Ana, for example, was able to purchase a computer for the first time based on her Alta Gracia wages, which facilitated her training as a teacher. She plans to begin teaching night classes soon.
Hundreds of lives are lifted up because of Alta Gracia’s model of fair labor practices, and yet the prices you’ll see in the bookstore are equal to or sometimes lower than comparable goods. Their profit comes from the decreased costs resulting from low worker turnover, better health, high productivity and low marketing costs. So far, the gamble appears to be paying off.
That’s not to say it’s all sunshine and rainbows for Alta Gracia. The apparel market is especially competitive, and vying for space and attention in a crowded marketplace is difficult for a small factory looking to break into the already-saturated collegiate sector. While it may not be a fragile start-up anymore, its future still remains uncertain. It is projected to be profitable by 2015, but many factors could contribute to an unexpectedly weak year. The grand experiment is going well, but it’s far from over.
Georgetown has been one of the campuses most dedicated to promoting Alta Gracia’s goods, including ordering the 2014 New Student Orientation T-shirts from Alta Gracia and providing them prime space in the bookstore. More needs to be done, however. Though 400 campuses stock Alta Gracia products, the report notes that most of them have stocked only token quantities, nothing like the bulk orders that would support a robust manufacturing schedule year-round. And now that NSO is NSOver, there is a huge opportunity for student clubs to put that SAC (or PAAC or Media Board or ABSO-CSJ or ABCS) money to ethical use and buy their T-shirts from Alta Gracia.
Thus, there is a twofold call to action for the Georgetown community: Continue to support Alta Gracia at the bookstore and make it clear that we want more products and more floor space, and make a conscious effort to coordinate with your ally clubs to buy T-shirts together. Let’s give this audacious experiment the support it needs to change the apparel industry for good.
Julia Hubbell is a senior in the College.