Stanford Bookstore to carry new line of “living wage” apparel

Sept. 14, 2010, 2:03 a.m.

Maritza Vargas, a factory worker in the Dominican Republic, just bought her family a computer, recently moved to a larger house and is able to provide her children with what she calls “proper nutrition.” Vargas can do this because she is paid a wage she says she can actually live on.

“For the first time, I can save up money, so if there is an emergency, I am prepared,” she said in a phone interview from the Dominican Republic. Vargas, who has spent 22 years of her life working at a clothing factory, is a contributing member of the Alta Gracia factory, an operating facility owned by Knights Apparel. The clothing she and other factory workers make will be sold at universities around the United States, including at the Stanford Bookstore.

The brainchild of Knights CEO Joe Bozich, the factory pays all its workers a “living wage,” which is approximately three times the minimum wage paid to the average factory worker in the Dominican Republic. This means that workers like Vargas, a single mother of five, can hope to provide for their families beyond the day-to-day trajectory.

The business strategy faces skeptics who say the higher wages paid to Alta Gracia workers will drive the factory’s product out of the market for such items as custom t-shirts and sweatshirts, some of Knights Apparel’s biggest sellers. But Bozich, a seasoned businessman in the sportswear trade, said he hopes the company’s commitment to providing sustainable wages for the workers at Alta Gracia will elicit an enthusiastic response from college campus bookstores.

So far, it seems to have done so. Some 400 university bookstores have already made arrangements with Knights Apparel to carry clothing items made at the Alta Gracia factory. The Stanford Bookstore is one of them and plans to display some of the factory’s styles in time for fall quarter.

Janet Gawley, the store director, sees the sale of Alta Gracia clothing as a promising addition to the apparel the store already stocks. Since the Stanford Bookstore is operated by the Follett Higher Education Group, the decision to carry certain items made by the factory was not Gawley’s to make. Still, she sees this as a move in the right direction.

“Follett saw an opportunity to bring in a line of clothing that benefits individuals who are working in that factory,” Gawley said. “I know that we will continue to seek out this sort of product.” But, she said, “I don’t know if we can ever realistically replace everything in the store, clothing-wise, with that.”

Alta Gracia long-sleeve shirts produced at the factory will be sold at the bookstore for $22, compared to $18 to $26 for shirts from other brands. Hooded sweatshirts from the factory are priced comparably to other brands.

For now, the bookstore and the Alta Gracia clothing it will carry seem to impress its most immediate clothing competitor, the Stanford Store. As members of an entirely student-operated business, the store’s staff pays close attention to the sourcing of its merchandise, ensuring that all its products are supplied from within the United States.

“It’s very cool that they’re doing that,” Stanford Store manager Olivia Witter ‘13 said of the bookstore.

While consumers and store managers weigh price differences, the changes in Vargas’ work environment are quite certain. “I’m working in a factory that I feel is really mine, because I feel respected in the community,” she said.

At her previous workplace, she said, managers of the factories would use commands and obscenities to coerce their workers to work harder. Now, she has even seen employed professionals abandon their jobs to work at Alta Gracia, she said.

“Not only do I get a better life,” she said, “but I get to see other people in the factory have better lives.”

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