Last year, United Students Against Sweatshops were able to make a significant step in changing the way the collegiate apparel industry operates by working with Knights Apparel to open the Alta Gracia factory, offering students the opportunity to buy sweat-free hoodies. Recently they took a group of students to visit the factory and inspect the working conditions. Here’s a report from the Daily at University of Washington, which is contracting with Alta Gracia.
By Kirsten Johnson
February 1, 2011
On a typical day in any lecture class, it’s easy to spot students sporting purple UW-logo hoodies. While owning one or two of these is common, some people might not think about the working conditions under which they were made.
USAS member Morgan Currier wears her Alta Gracia sweatshirt in front of the only U-Book Store clothing rack that holds the brand.
“Something that we take for granted [is] where our clothes come from,” said sophomore Morgan Currier. “Like we don’t necessarily think about it that much.”
As a member of the UW chapter of United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), Currier and her fellow members have been bringing attention on campus to the issue of sweatshop-made apparel, as well as promoting Alta Gracia Apparel — a brand that guarantees its factory workers benefits including health care, a living wage and unionization.
Just recently, Currier traveled alongside six other USAS college students to view the Alta Gracia factory conditions firsthand.
“It’s exactly what a factory should be,” she said. “It has fans, it has lights, emergency exits. They can get up and get water when they need, they can talk to each other, they can go on bathroom breaks.”
Currier said that she found it interesting to see the work ethic the factory workers had in performing simple tasks.
“Everyone has a part,” she said. “Someone will sew on the hood, someone will sew on the sleeve — they do this all day, every day. They make thousands of pieces of apparel every day. I don’t think the average American would be able to sit [there] all day and sew on a hood the same way they do a thousand times, every day.”
During her visit, she brought her own UW sweatshirt to show one of the workers.
“I swore he was going to cry,” she said. “It was just like, ‘Look at this thing that I have created that has your university logo, and you wear it at your school in America, but I made it here.’ He was just looking at the stitching and [was] really, really proud of his work.”
This past November, the U-Book Store began selling a small selection of Alta Gracia apparel in its stores. CEO of the U-Book Store Bryan Pearce said that the store looked into the initiative that was proposed by Knights Apparel, who created the Alta Gracia brand, and decided to place an initial order.
“We thought it was very noble and had quite a bit of merit to it,” Pearce said. “We felt it was important for our store to carry that line of products along with the other things that we do in the interest of being socially responsible.”
Before the Alta Gracia apparel arrived in the U-Book Store last November, members of USAS brought two factory workers from the Dominican Republic to campus to describe their former working conditions and help promote Alta Gracia.
USAS — previously known as SLAP — has existed in various forms on campus since 1997. They have been actively involved in many major social-justice campaigns, including the Nike campaign last year.
USAS is hoping to promote Alta Gracia since the U-Book Store sells the apparel based on demand.
Senior Garrett Strain, a member of USAS, said he hopes that eventually all the apparel purchased by the university will be produced in factories like Alta Gracia.
“It’s much less important to me that it’s Alta Gracia and more that it’s produced in a factory where workers have the right to have the freedom to join a union and be paid a living wage,” he said. “That’s ultimately the bottom line for me. Students should care because it’s their school’s emblem that is being screened on these sweatshirts. In many ways, [sweatshop-produced apparel] tarnishes the reputation and the image of our school. And I think students should be proactive in wanting to purchase clothes that shed their school in a good light and provide it with a reputation for standing up for workers’ rights.”
Currier said that response that they have received from student groups so far has been encouraging.
“The school argues that there is only a small percentage of students that care about where their apparel was made and that those are the types of students [who] don’t necessarily wear UW apparel, but we think that they’re wrong,” she said. “We think a lot of students care, including students in the Greek Community, in ASUW, in these smaller communities that typically wear their apparel more, we think that they care just as much.”
Reach reporter Kirsten Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org.