Over the last five years, Gary Swisher, assistant director of the Cornell Store, has asked his customers about the factors that affected their clothing purchases. They have mentioned the clothes’ appearance, size and color, but they rarely — if ever — took into account the working conditions of the people who made them.
“Of all the important factors, sweatshop-free hasn’t hit most people’s radars,” he said.
But Swisher thinks that will change soon, thanks to a new line of clothing, called Alta Gracia, that will be introduced at the Cornell Store later this week.
The new brand — created by Knights Apparel — is produced exclusively in a factory in Villa Altagracia, Dominican Republic. Alta Gracia employees earn a “living wage,” which is roughly three times more than that of comparable apparel workers in the country, and they work in a setting that has been designed with their safety in mind.
Swisher said that the University’s active anti-sweatshop movement, spearheaded by Cornell Students Against Sweatshops, has raised enough awareness on campus about the issue that, he hopes, it will ultimately translate into a different decision-making process when making clothing purchases. He added that due to higher production costs, Alta Gracia clothing will be priced slightly higher than other brands of comparable quality.
Swisher emphasized, however, that though Alta Gracia goes above and beyond labor standards in comparison to the other brands the Cornell Store sells, all of the store’s brands currently meet labor standards set by the Workers Rights Consortium, an independent labor rights monitoring organization.
“We really try to be assertive about the brands that sell product to us upholding the [WRC] code of conduct,” he said.
Donnie Hodge, president and chief operating officer of Knights Apparel, said the company has a responsibility to maintain this sweatshop-free initiative in the hopes of improving working conditions for garment workers around the world.
There is not currently enough demand for its products to keep the factory operating at full capacity, but Hodge said that consumer interest in the product and the anti-sweatshop dialogue that has spread across college campuses may eventually prompt an increase in the factory’s production and encourage the model to spread to other factories.
“You have a debate or a dialogue that goes on in the academic environment,” Hodge said. “The challenge is always to create a real life situation to support it. We’re depending on all the students and student organizations to realize that this is real and to make the decision to buy this product.”
Mike Powers, who oversees Cornell licensing and sits on the executive board of the Workers Rights Consortium, said that the growth and expansion of the Alta Gracia brand depends on how well consumers are educated about workers’ rights issues.
There will be tags on all of the brand’s clothing and display racks that tell stories of the individual workers in the Dominican factory, Powers said. However, he said that he expects student activism to play a bigger role in spreading awareness about the issue than the passive tags.
“Consumers need to understand that by purchasing this apparel, they are helping families in the Dominican Republic to send their children to school,” he said. “The students deserve a lot of credit for keeping this issue on the front burner.”
Powers particularly credited the work of Cornell Students Against Sweatshops. CSAS, in collaboration with other universities, recently helped to pressure Nike to pay back wages to employees at a factory in Honduras. Powers applauded the visible role that student volunteers took on campus, pointing to the public “work out for workers rights” events.
Alex Bores ’13, president of CSAS, said that — though the organization is not a marketing club — it will help get the word out about the new Alta Gracia brand clothes.
One event CSAS is planning would bring together workers from the Honduran factory, which supplies Nike, and those from the Alta Gracia factory.
“We want to be more involved and make sure students are buying Alta Gracia apparel,” Bores said.
He echoed Hodge’s view that, with educated consumers, factories like the one at Alta Gracia might become the standard.
“Right now this kind of factory is the exception,” he said. “We don’t see this as one charity case or one special event. We think that this could change the way that the apparel industry operates.”