Starting this fall, some of the apparel sold at the university bookstore carries a story with it: The employees of the manufacturers are paid a living wage and afforded worker benefits as part of an ambitious multinational experiment.

Georgetown is one of more than 300 university bookstores this year to sell products certified by the Workers Rights Consortium, the leading labor rights watchdog organization in the United States. The merchandise is crafted at a factory in Villa Alta Gracia in the Dominican Republic, where 120 employees earn nearly 3.5 times the minimum wage. The factory was established by Knights Apparel, the leading college apparel supplier in the country, as a test of the viability of social responsibility.

Workers at the factory are paid a living wage, which is calculated to provide the worker and up to two dependents with food, clothing, shelter, transportation and education, and to allow employees to pay off any debt they may have. Under the agreement, Alta Gracia workers are allowed to unionize and the factory is outfitted with bright lights and ergonomic chairs to improve working conditions.

“This represents a fundamental departure from anything that has been done before. . What Alta Gracia is doing goes far beyond the concept of fair trade,” said Scott Nova, executive director of the WRC.

The factory’s presence has also brought dramatic change to the surrounding town.

“[Villa Alta Gracia] is a small town where the main trade zone closed down several years ago and they were barely making it,” said Georgetown professor of International Business Economy John Kline, who wrote a report on the project and its viability.

“This represents for them a real hope. Just the wage differential allows for them to send their kids to school with the right clothes, to be able to feed them in a decent way, not to borrow money from their relatives or live with their parents,” Kline added. “The impact of it is something that you really have to see and experience.”

any detractors doubt that the Alta Gracia experiment can be profitable in the highly competitive garment industry. Companies are seen as engaged in a race to the bottom, in an effort to churn out clothing at the lowest costs, regardless of worker conditions. Alta Gracia’s supporters believe the manufacturer represents a viable business model, however.

“What Knights Apparel has really done is create a model factory that represents how apparel should be made and how workers should be treated,” Nova said.

Although the higher wages paid to workers means Alta Gracia’s production costs are much higher than the norm in the apparel industry, Alta Gracia products are sold to retailers at the same wholesale prices as other companies. This means that retailers can afford to sell the products at prices competitive with other brands. It also demonstrates that Alta Gracia and Knights Apparel are willing to accept lower profits in order to establish fairer labor standards.

“From a business standpoint, we believe that we have an obligation to try [to] use our business to try [to] do more than just what’s required of us in terms of corporate responsibilities,” Knights Apparel CEO Joseph Bozich said during a press conference call on Aug. 31.

Ultimately, the project’s success depends on whether or not shoppers are inspired by the concept of worker-friendly apparel. The project’s proponents do not believe this hurdle will deter buyers.

“Student-activists, including the activists at Georgetown, have done a tremendous job over many years convincing universities around the country of the need for change. As a result of all that work, there was great openness on the part of stores all over the country to carry this product,” Nova said.

In February of 2009, the university refused to renew its contract with Russell Athletic after the company shut down a factory in Honduras that had attempted to unionize. The decision was made two days after a student group called the Georgetown Solidarity Committee, working with United Students Against Sweatshops, a national organization, protested the corporation in Red Square.

Follett Higher Education Group, which manages the university bookstore, has been collaborating with Knights Apparel since the beginning of the project two years ago. Although only eight items sold in the bookstore this year will be from the Alta Gracia factory, it is a large launch for a vendor that has as small a production capacity as Alta Gracia.

“We’re hoping for success, but we’ll need to see what shopping behaviors look like,” Jim Kuhlman, director of the university bookstore, said in an email. “Today, more than 95 percent of the clothing vendors in Follett’s network are very active in this mission and are all members of the Fair Labor Association. Whether that carries clout with the purchasers, we’ll wait and see.”

Georgetown students and alumni are enthusiastic about the new apparel.

“Increasing the standards at which apparel is made [.] definitely exemplifies the philosophy of the school,” Elaine Evangelista (MSB ’03) said. “I would definitely buy something knowing it had been produced according to those standards.”

Many students also said that the university community should be made more aware of the project.

“It’s great for the bookstore, but I would never have noticed had I not been told. I think it’s something that a lot of students would respond positively to, but I think they need to advertise it better or no one will ever know,”

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