Barnes & Noble adds sweatshop-free apparel

November 11, 2010

Hopkins’ Barnes & Noble bookstore now offers apparel from Alta Gracia, an industry-leading apparel manufacturer that pays workers 340% above minimum wage and provides benefits.

“We were involved with Knights Apparel a couple years ago,” Karen DiScala, Manager of Corporate Communications for Barnes & Noble College, said. “They have a wonderful product and we hope to be there for the long run.”

Barnes & Noble Johns Hopkins, however, has not made Alta Gracia its sole provider.

“Barnes & Noble added Alta Gracia as an vendor to our existing vendor list.  There will continue to be other apparel options at the bookstore,” Rebecca Lafleur, General Manager of Barnes & Noble Johns Hopkins, wrote in an email to The News-Letter.

Although this may raise concerns that Barnes & Noble endorses lesser labor standards than Alta Gracia does, it does not.

“We require all vendors to adhere to the Fair Labor Associations Code of Conduct,” DiScala said. “[The addition of] Alta Gracia was a natural extension of those ideals.”

The Fair Labor Associations Code of Conduct includes paragraphs for the respectful and dignified treatment of employees, paragraphs for the health and safety of the working environment, and many other humanitarian ideals.

While the cost of its wages are much higher compared to other manufacturers, fears of similarly scaled prices for their product may be unwarranted.

“Alta Gracia clothing will sell for the same price as other major brands and is of at least equal quality,” a Barnes and Noble press release stated.

“Our intention is to keep prices equivalent as possible [to other brands],” DiScala said.

Barnes & Noble has expressed its excitement over this new addition.

“We are very proud to be a part of this endeavor and to offer our students another opportunity to purchase high-quality merchandise that was manufactured with a high regard for workers rights,” LaFleur said in a press release.

“We have used in store signing, social media as well as e-mail to advertise this additional vendor,” Lafleur wrote to The News-Letter.

But despite those efforts, many students were completely unaware of the change.

“I don’t know a word of what you’re talking about,” one student said when asked about the apparel change.

But when informed of the new apparel provider, students agreed that the standards Alta Gracia promoted were positive things.

“I don’t know if it was necessary but it is a good thing,” junior Abby Roberts said in regards to the addition of Alta Gracia.

“It’s ideal. If companies can, it be nice if they could,” sophomore Matt Tausch said about the higher standard Alta Gracia has.

However, while they agreed that providing workers with a higher standard of living was a positive idea and should be supported, some students were otherwise unconcerned and unaffected by this knowledge.

“If it was close, it could be the tipping point . . . [but] it’s not significant enough,” Tausch said in regards to if his knowledge of Alta Gracia’s ideals would affect his choice in buying apparel.

“I guess I’ll feel a little bit better if I buy a t-shirt or something. It doesn’t make a difference,” sophomore Wyatt Larkin said. “If all other things be equal it seems like it’s a good idea.”

Other students were much more affected by the news of Alta Gracia’s success with the University.

“It seems like the right thing to do. If [two brands] were comparable in other ways, I would definitely choose this provider over another brand,” senior Emily Platz said.

“I would definitely want to buy from this brand. Even if it’s more expensive, I’m willing to put the money up because it’s going towards a good cause instead of somebody that’s just making a bunch of shirts in China and the conditions aren’t changing,” junior Lisandra Rodriguez said.

“We’re in a society where everyone is trying to change and become more environmentally aware and globally aware. This is a great time to [introduce change] when everything is changing as a whole,” Rodriguez said.

Alta Gracia apparel is now available for purchase at the Barnes & Nobles Johns Hopkins bookstore and website.

A division of Knights Apparel, Alta Gracia is a brand of college logo apparel that produces t-shirts, sweatshirts and hoodies for over 350 US colleges and universities. However, Alta Gracia differs from other manufacturers in a unique aspect.

“What makes Alta Gracia so remarkable is their industry-leading commitment to provide workers with a sustainable standard of living and the opportunity to raise their families out of poverty,” a Barnes and Noble press release stated.

“We [Alta Gracia] pay our workers a wage that enables them to provide adequate food, clean water, clothing, shelter, health care, child care, and education for themselves and their families — a ‘living wage,’” the Alta Gracia website states.

Located in the town of Villa Altagracia in the Dominican Republic, the Alta Gracia factory provides workers with benefits and pays workers 340 percent above the minimum wage — $2.83 per hour as opposed to the minimum of $0.85 per hour.

“The wage was set based on a study of local living costs by the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), the labor rights watchdog organization with which over 180 colleges and universities are affiliated,” a Barnes and Noble press release stated.

This wage rate was certified by the WRC as sufficient to cover food and water, housing and energy, clothing, health care, transportation, childcare and education for a family of four, including funds for savings and discretionary spending.

“Alta Gracia is also committed to fully respecting the workers’ right to freedom of association, collective bargaining, and the right to organize,” a Barnes and Noble press release stated.

“To ensure ongoing compliance and transparency, Alta Gracia is working with the Maquiladora Health and Safety Support Network, Dominican Labor Federation, and Fedotrazonas to provide ongoing verification of the wages, benefits, and working conditions in the Alta Gracia factory.”

“Alta Gracia is the result of a multi-year project involving Knights Apparel, leading independent labor rights groups, NGO’s, Health and Safety experts, unions and Barnes & Noble,” a Barnes and Noble press release stated.

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