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By a Thread:   02 / 25 / 2012

TOWN - by Heidi Coryell Williams - February 27, 2012 - Have you ever lost something so important that you felt like a piece of yourself was gone, too? A job opportunity. A chance at a better life. A child.

Now multiply that hopelessness by 100,000 people, put all of them in the same, desolate little town. Then leave them there for years, struggling for survival with no end in sight.

The bleakness is almost unimaginable, and yet it has addresses all over the world: Sri Lanka, Haiti, Honduras.

Chances are, your closet is full of clothes that came from one of these desperate places—factories where people toil for ten hours at a stretch without eating, drinking, or using a bathroom. Where they are paid so little, they can feed only themselves or their families, but rarely both. They go without healthcare, running water, and without seeing their children for weeks on end.

Chances are, the hands that stitched the shirt on your back have suffered more in a day than most of us will in a lifetime. Unless the tag inside reads, “Alta Gracia.”

Because in that case, it came from a small town in the Dominican Republic, owned by Spartanburg-based Knights Apparel. The licensed sports-apparel company is the largest distributor of collegiate apparel in the United States (surpassing Nike in 2005), but it has spent the past two years quietly building perhaps its most notable brand: Alta Gracia.

The shirt label shares its name with a village in the Dominican Republic and with the Knights Apparel factory there that employs 150 men and women. The factory pays these workers a living wage, or in Spanish “a wage with dignity,” and Knights Apparel remains the only company in the developing world to adopt a living-wage model like this.

Alta Gracia is a lone crusader in a cutthroat industry, but it is succeeding. That success brings hope that others will join their fight against poverty. And hope is what keeps the executives of Knights Apparel, the workers of Alta Gracia, and the families of disenfranchised sweatshops everywhere hanging on . . .

Stateside for more than 48 hours, and the thrill had yet to wear off for Donnie Hodge. The memory of it clung to him—standing in the center of his factory floor, a hundred men and women gathered before and around him, shouting, clapping, beaming.

Seamstresses and managers alike were cheering—for themselves, as much as for Hodge. They were applauding his February announcement of a new, big client: Notre Dame’s “The Shirt.” The order, which will net thousands of garments coming out of the Alta Gracia plant in coming months, brings the factory running as close to capacity as it ever has in its brief, two-year history. The plant has doubled the demand for its product in just over a year. And the Shirt, along with thousands of other orders from bookstores in the Palmetto State and across the nation, brought about this victory—one that everyone hoped for, but that few could guarantee in the highly competitive apparel marketplace.

Alta Gracia was officially running full tilt. No subsidies. No handouts. Just hard work and, in return for that work, a safe place to labor and a decent wage in return.

The factory cheered. Hodge concluded his address. And just as quickly as they had celebrated, the workers turned back to the job at hand: creating thousands of collegiate t-shirts and hoodies. Because the employees of Alta Gracia may be making garments to fill the clothing racks in campus bookstores across the United States, but what they are really creating is a life for themselves and their families.

In a town of 100,000, the employment rolls at Alta Gracia make up only a fraction of Villa Altagracia’s population, which on its face would seem a tragedy given that the community has an unemployment rate of 95 percent. But against the odds, their small share of work is already making waves down the street and across the globe.

there’s a lot of things that need to be done,” says Hodge, an Upstate native and Knights Apparel’s president and chief operating officer. “You can’t let the fact that what you are doing may make only a small footprint overall affect you.”

Truth is, small steps are what have made Knights Apparel’s Alta Gracia factory such a Cinderella story. Flash back to 2007, when Knights Apparel consolidated its multinational operations to a single facility in the Upstate. Just two years earlier, the company had surpassed Nike as the No. 1 provider of collegiate apparel, in addition to distributing some of the world’s most exclusive sports brands: Nascar, NFL, NHL, Major League Baseball, and college sports teams across the nation, to name a few. And yet, the company moved into its local offices quietly, without fanfare.

That’s because despite its size and reach, Knights Apparel will probably never be a household name. It’s a predictable outcome of selling products with someone else’s name on them—whether it’s Duke University or the Atlanta Braves. And, like most brand apparel companies, Knights Apparel doesn’t actually make most of the garments it distributes and sells. Instead, the model is to sub out the work to factories owned by third parties—usually in international locations.

The exception is Alta Gracia.

Two Georgetown University professors, John M. Kline and Edward Soule, who have an ongoing study of humane employment practices in the global apparel industry, describe the business model like this: “Most brand apparel companies do not produce anything. Rather they subcontract with literally thousands of ‘contract manufacturers’ around the world, using their purchasing power and ability to pit producer against producer to achieve the lowest possible costs.”

But with low costs come poor working conditions—where training is almost obsolete, workers are subject to harsh abuses, and wages barely cover the cost of getting to and from the factory. In the 1990s, an organization called United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) began to push back against this model, eventually eliciting an agreement from apparel companies to at least disclose the locations of the factories that produced their collegiate apparel. What they found was, not surprisingly, poor treatment of employees and even poorer wages.

Students demanded something better. Apparel manufacturers were under the gun. Enter Knights Apparel.

“We have a great partnership with all the universities,” Hodge recalls, and as he and company chief executive officer Joseph Bozich discussed what to do, they increasingly felt it needed to be something significant. Bozich, who is based in Chicago, asked Hodge to oversee the effort: creation of a living-wage factory to produce their collegiate apparel. It meant buying the facility (the first and only factory Knights Apparel owns), rehabbing it for safe working conditions, and then staffing it with employees and managers.

Hodge was up for the challenge.

An Upstate native, he is an experienced executive whose résumé includes stints at WestPoint Stevens, Milliken, and Gerber Childrenswear. Knights Apparel already had a philanthropic arm of its operations called weKAre that supports charities in the Upstate and beyond, including the Children’s Advocacy Center in Spartanburg. Alta Gracia was just the next step in its mission to give back to the community—this time, the global community.

“We felt like someone should do something to support the students,” Hodge says. “We thought someone ought to do it; we felt like we should do it.”

So, they found an old factory in a Dominican Republic industrial zone and bought it, then spent a year getting it started. Last year, they staffed the facility, hired more than 100 workers, and paid them three and a half times the average wage in the Dominican Republic. One of the first things workers did was organize a union, a move embraced by Knights Apparel. The living wage they receive, which was defined by the Workers Rights Consortium, allows workers to do things like have somewhere to live with running water, buy food to feed their families, and save for the future.

“We try our best to be good corporate citizens and support different things in the community,” Hodge says. “My personal opinion is we took that to mean, let’s support this community in the Dominican Republic.”

Not surprisingly, the move was met with support and encouragement by collegians and university officials, many of them already eager to find a way to abandon sweatshop practices, and support, instead, a fair-wage garment factory. Knights Apparel gave them the chance, and the response has been phenomenal. The line launched at 250 stores, and, a year later, Alta Gracia is supplying more than 400 college and university bookstores with “Living Wage—Union Made” t-shirts and sweatshirts.

“It’s really gratifying,” Hodge says, “because it resonates with people what a difference it’s making.”

What does a “living wage” mean? Different things in different places, but in the Dominican Republic, it means about three and a half times what the average worker there is currently earning. So, while the average factory worker makes less than $8,200 a year elsewhere in the Dominican Republic, an Alta Gracia worker will earn nearly $29,000 this year. That allows workers to do things they have never been able to do before, like have indoor plumbing, send their children to school, or build dividers between rooms in their cinderblock homes. They can afford healthcare for the first time in their lives, pay off debts, take paid maternity leave, and buy nutritious food to feed their families. Best of all, they can work fewer hours and still support their families, allowing them to spend time with children and spouses.

Knights Apparel takes a loss on some of these extra costs, but many of them are being recouped through efficiency, lack of turnover, fewer sick days, and high-yield production from a happy and well-trained workforce. Employees manage themselves, in most cases, eliminating the need for lots of higher-wage managerial positions.

The stores where Alta Gracia does best are not in the Upstate, or even in South Carolina, although their t-shirts and hoodies are sold at a dozen Palmetto State schools, including Clemson, USC, Furman, Wofford, and others. Schools like Duke, NYU, Notre Dame, UCLA, Georgetown, Penn State, Yale, and Florida International do the most volume, mostly because these bookstores don’t just carry the brand, they promote it heavily with large signage that includes Alta Gracia’s motto, “Changing Lives, One Shirt at a Time,” as well as prominent store placement.

“A year later, we can say with confidence, that doing good is good business,” the company announced a year after Alta Gracia opened its doors. “And, yes, students do support the brand because it is socially responsible.”

That Alta Gracia is succeeding challenges the very notion that to be competitive in the global apparel marketplace, workers’ rights and wages must be suppressed, according to Georgetown University professors Kline and Soule in their work Alta Gracia: Work with a Salario Digno (a wage with dignity).

Better yet, the dollars earned by the workers of Alta Gracia are extending well beyond the 150 families they support. The Georgetown study shows that this money is being spent at other businesses in the town—banks, grocers, builders, and brick makers—and it is making a noticeable impact. In the meantime, the Workers Rights Consortium continues to monitor factory operations and practices at Alta Gracia to ensure that conditions are safe and healthy, that workers have the right to organize, and that labor standards are being met.

To verify this compliance, the WRC subjects the factory to intensive and ongoing scrutiny, “making it, in all likelihood, the most comprehensively monitored collegiate apparel factory in the world,” the WRC says in its most recent compliance verification report on the factory.

The goal now is to continue growing the brand, and—down the road—possibly expand Alta Gracia’s operations, Hodge says. In the meantime, educators and industry experts will be watching closely to determine if other companies could create similar work environments for their factories.

“Rare indeed are comparable instances where the managers of an apparel manufacturing facility in the developing world prioritize the welfare of its workers over short-term profit maximization,” the Georgetown University report says. “Alta Gracia is a managerial moral exemplar in an industry in which workers have not been accorded the respect they deserve.”

The workers of Alta Gracia have, for the first time in many of their lives, a promising future ahead of them. They are returning to school. Funding new businesses. Supporting their families. But, as the Georgetown University study concludes, Alta Gracia’s highest accomplishment has been laying a foundation that other factories can build upon.

“Over time, the benefits of its intelligent and humane approach to management should be evident, and they should be adaptable to a range of business models and pay scales,” Kline and Soule say. “The long-term promise of Alta Gracia is the light it shines on these possibilities.”

 

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