The Missoulian - By Gwen Florio - Septembet 17, 2011 University of Montana team spirit got a little warmer and fuzzier Friday with the announcement that some Griz apparel now is socially responsible - meaning that the Dominican workers who make it are paid a living wage.
UM announced Friday that it's partnering with college wear supplier Knights Apparel, which created the Alta Gracia brand whose motto is "Changing Lives One Shirt at a Time."
The move follows years of campus demonstrations - including a brief takeover of then-President George Dennison's office in 2008 - by members of Students for Economic and Social Justice. The next year, the university canceled a contract with Russell Athletic because of allegations it violated union workers' rights in a Honduran factory, although UM denied the move had anything to do with the protests.
"It was definitely student activism that got them here," SESJ member Kelsey McMullan exulted after Friday's announcement.
That announcement brought Knights Apparel founder and CEO Joe Bozich to UM, along with Scott Nova, executive director of the Workers Rights Consortium, which restricts UM and other member universities to getting their supplies from factories with approved labor conditions.
"Can you actually change a life by buying a Montana T-shirt?" Bozich himself voiced the challenge on Friday.
The answer? Alta Gracia assesses a family's cost of living - for things like housing, food, water, electricity and education - and adjusts its wages accordingly. For instance, it pays workers in the Dominican Republic $2.83 per hour, as opposed to the 85 cents required by law, he said.
But a socially responsible business does no one any good if it can't stay in business, he said. So Alta Gracia did test sales to ensure that people would pay a few dollars more per garment if they knew the money went to a good cause.
"Not only did the product sell, but we found that the socially responsible message actually raised sales," he said.
Nova said his organization monitored the Alta Gracia factory for a year "and it passed with flying colors." In fact, Nova said it's the only time in 11 years of monitoring by the consortium - which accepts no corporate funding - that a factory's workers have organized a union without intense opposition.
Alta Gracia proves that "apparel doesn't have to be made under sweatshop conditions," he said. "In the context of the global apparel industry, that's revolutionary."
Bozich credited the student activists with paving the way for Knights Apparel's partnership with UM.
McMullan said that activism will continue. Alta Gracia apparel will comprise about 8 percent of what's sold in the campus bookstore, she said. SESJ wants to see that rise to 25 percent.
The group will work with members of the Associated Students of the University of Montana to pass a resolution to that effect this year, she said.
"No other school has done that," she said. "It would be revolutionary. It would make UM the first in the nation to do that. It's going to be a huge year for us."
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