The first-to-the-eye displays at the front of the Georgetown University bookstore don’t belong to Nike or Adidas or other recognized giants of the global garment trade, but to Alta Gracia, the label of a South Carolina company trying to carve a niche by paying above-average wages at its Dominican Republic factory and building confidence about the working conditions.
It is a small but telling beachhead in the fight to police the textile industry — a sector plagued by deadly incidents such as the recent collapse of a factory in Bangladesh that killed more than 1,000 workers, but so large and globally diffuse that activists say it is difficult to monitor, let alone change. A single garment might combine parts, labor, fabric and other elements from several countries, complicating efforts to create any sort of “fair trade” labeling standard. Old-fashioned consumer boycott tactics are shunned because workers might get fired as a result.
In the estimated $4 billion market for apparel branded with university logos, however, an unlikely alliance between activist students and university administrators has made at least a small dent. The last thing a Jesuit-affiliated school such as Georgetown needs is for a batch of bulldog T-shirts to be found in the rubble of a faraway factory disaster. As a result — and in response to persistent student activism on the issue — university officials pressed the bookstore’s management to move Alta Gracia in front of Nike, Hurley and the other brands at the store. Georgetown joined a nationwide apparel consortium that includes 180 schools and proved that in the battle for the student dollar, a well-timed threat to sever business can make major multinationals change course.
Action by the Worker Rights Consortium, whose members include large public schools such as the University of Wisconsin as well as private institutions such as Georgetown, is credited with persuading Russell Athletics to reopen a unionized plant it had shuttered in Central America and pressuring Adidas to make severance payments to Indonesian workers beyond the requirements of local law.
“This industry has an almost moveable feast of supply chains. . . . You sometimes feel like you are chasing cats” in trying to monitor where shirts, sweatshirts and other Hoya gear come from, said Georgetown Associate Vice President Scott Fleming, who also serves on the board of the consortium. Sales of Alta Gracia clothes, priced about the same as comparable gear from Nike and other major brands, have increased roughly 25 percent since the company’s displays were put at the front of the store, according to the university.
The collapse of the Rana Plaza textile center last month and other incidents in Bangladesh have intensified pressure on top world retailers to take more responsibility for safety and work conditions in the tens of thousands of plants they contract with in Asia, South America and elsewhere to produce much of the developed world’s clothing.
Low wages and the ability of companies to shift contracts around the world have kept prices static for 20 years. But since textile production dispersed around the globe in the 1980s and 1990s, the industry has been dogged with accidents and worker abuses that came prominently to light in 1996 when it was revealed that a line of clothing endorsed by television star Kathie Lee Gifford was manufactured at a Honduran plant that employed young teenagers.