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 All-American television star Kathie Lee Gifford was manufactured at a Honduran plant that employed young teenagers.
The intervening years have seen a network of organizations grow up around the issue — groups such as the consortium, and the closely affiliated United Students Against Sweatshops — and put pressure on the companies. But the accidents continue. Though analysts say major companies have become stricter about conditions in the factories they use, they still hold that the industry as a whole is too loosely regulated and that the major brands and retailers are largely immune from formal responsibility.
Dara O’Rourke, an associate professor at the University of California at Berkeley, started GoodGuide to provide detailed information on ingredients and parts used in consumer products and to assess the environmental and social issues associated with their manufacture. The database is now up to 180,000 items, he said, but apparel is the one category where garment-specific details are unavailable, forcing the guide to rely on broad assessments of company practices rather than the product-by-product deconstruction done for items such as cat food.
“It is an opaque supply chain,” O’Rourke said, “and a difficult one to track for consumers and the brands — to know not only which factory in Bangladesh . . . but, further down, can you guarantee no cotton came from Uzbekistan using child labor?”
The Rana Plaza disaster may have changed the landscape. The Obama administration is considering stripping Bangladesh of tax breaks on some of its imports unless the country makes progress in areas such as a planned overhaul of labor laws. A binding and union-monitored fire and safety accord, signed by 31 mostly European firms, has now given consumers a way to distinguish among companies not just by the style and cut of their clothes, but by the image of their brands, O’Rourke said.
“There is a very clear opportunity for consumers to say, ‘Do I want to shop at H&M, Zara, Benetton, the Gap?’ All very fast fashion, consumer brands. And Gap has not signed this and H&M has,” he said.
Activists and others say they plan to press the point in coming weeks — focusing on Gap in particular as a major business that could pull other U.S. companies into the accord. In recent weeks, U.S. elected officials have called on American companies to join the accord, online petitions have graphically targeted the company, and at a recent shareholder meeting the questions from the floor were about labor practices overseas.
In a presentation devoted to expanding what he called the company’s “global iconic brands,” which include Old Navy and Banana Republic, chief executive Glenn Murphy said he was confident Gap’s internal standards and an ongoing round of inspections would protect workers as effectively as the accord his European competitors had signed. He said he supports the idea of an industrywide pact in principle, but only with changes that would limit the ability of union or other groups to use it as a basis for lawsuits.
“If we signed on to something that had unlimited liability and risk, our shareholders should care about that,” he said. “Bangladesh is no different from Cambodia or Vietnam — they are all complicated situations. . . . The way we can fight for safety or security is to work through the people we have hired, through our vendors and going factory by factory and try to make recommendations and changes.”
For Natalia Margolis, a recent Georgetown graduate who spent her four years involved in United Students Against Sweatshops, that doesn’t cut it. The organization pressed the administration to join with students and ask the bookstore to begin promoting Alta Gracia — precisely because they don’t trust companies such as Gap to do enough.
“They target young people with their advertising, but they have not respected us enough to realize we won’t mindlessly consume their product,” she said.
It was that sentiment that led Joseph Bozich, chief executive of South Carolina-based Knights Apparel, to try a mold-breaking experiment with the creation of Alta Gracia. Knights is one of the big players in the college clothing industry, No. 2 in the field behind Nike, according to the Collegiate Licensing Co.
Most of the company’s production is spread around the world like its competitors’, including in Bangladesh. But Bozich said it was the emotional appeal of students that led him to think there was a viable business in clothes “branded” with their concerns in mind.
Alta Gracia pays more than triple the minimum wage, is run with strong employee input and relies on outside monitors to certify factory conditions.
Three years into the experiment, Bozich said the factory loses money, with lower profit margins on each item because of the higher wage and other costs, and the low overall demand. But he is confident he is on to something, pointing to the million dollars’ worth of sales that have come out of Duke University, and the spread of the line through the Barnes & Noble book chain.
“Fair trade” coffee and organic foods were also once on the fringes, he noted, but became mainstream as consumers — bit by bit — demanded them.
Complaints about textile industry practices began surfacing years ago in his conversations with the students, Bozich said.
“When I stopped being defensive and listened . . . I heard them saying we want to and do take pride in our university and we want to buy apparel that bears the logo, but we also want to take pride in the conditions under which it has been made,” he said.