Two months ago, our company, Knights Apparel, started selling a new brand of college t-shirts and hoodies in about 200 campus bookstores around the country called Alta Gracia. Despite being the largest maker of college logo apparel in the country, we were nervous, because we are engaging in an experiment to see whether we can pay our workers a “living wage” and still be profitable.
At the Alta Gracia factory in the Dominican Republic, we pay our workers nearly 350% the local minimum wage so they can provide their families with adequate food, clean water, clothing, shelter, education and heath care. And we make sure their workplace is healthy and safe, and that their dignity and rights are respected. This is all verified through the Workers’ Rights Consortium, an independent labor rights’ organization affiliated with 185 colleges and universities, to make sure that we continue to uphold the high standards that we’ve set for ourselves. It’s unique enough that the New York Times dedicated a feature article in its business section this summer. How do we do it? We take a little less profit.
For the workers, this approach provides a pathway out of poverty and hope for the future – we think of it as Corporate Social Responsibility Plus.
The last few weeks have shown promise for our experiment. Just two short months into the school year, we were nominated as the Huffington Post Game Changer in Style, and with the help of our supporters, we were awarded that honor.
This win is a reflection that people like our idea: that you can do well by doing good. In our case, we’re paying workers a living wage, allowing them to form a union, and insuring that they have good working conditions. We want our model to be successful enough that it grows.
Here is what Arianna Huffington had to say about us when she announced the winners:
“While our Style Game Changers included style and fashion icons such as Tom Ford and Paulina Porizkova, and red carpet regulars Ashley and Mary Kate Olson, you selected Joe Bozich, who runs a garment factory in the Dominican Republic that pays its workers a living wage.”
Here are a few other things we’ve learned:
- All the research that says consumers will switch brands and buy products made by workers who they believe are treated fairly is bearing out. Jim Wilkerson of Duke, our largest single bookstore customer, keeps us informed on a weekly basis and his sales continue to be brisk.
- Our two large multi-bookstore partners, Barnes & Noble and Follett’s are both excited by the sales so far. Barnes & Noble is now committed to the long-term success of the project. Follett’s has also been happy with the sales figures and expressed their long-term commitment at a meeting with the President of the Dominican Republic.
- Other big schools are reporting interest and excitement. Bill Simpson at the University of Connecticut reports that sales began even before the university launched its promotional effort.
It wasn’t a given that this would work–it’s very difficult to change purchasing behavior. But we are now looking ahead to how we can expand the number of campuses we are on, and to continue making the connection that when you buy Alta Gracia, you are having a very direct and positive impact on workers’ lives.
We speak for the entire Alta Gracia family when we say thank you for helping spread the word, for supporting your values with your purchases and for helping to make a difference. And if you’re just hearing about us, learn about us and check out what we’ve got for you or your college-aged kids.
Guest post by Joe Bozich and Donnie Hodge