Alta Gracia: “Life Changing Apparel” from DR
by Sean Murray
As much as I strive to be a conscious consumer, I still feel a nagging disconnect between myself and the producers of the world – the farmers, artisans, and factory workers who make so much of what makes my life comfortable and convenient. In fact, on only a few occasions have I met and talked with the people who work hard producing what I eat, wear, and use throughout my day. So, over the past year, I have made it a point to bridge this gap, and on a balmy Wednesday in late March, I found myself in the Dominican Republic, standing in front of Alta Gracia, “the only apparel company in the developing world that is independently certified in paying a living wage.” What I witnessed and learned that day was truly inspiring.
But first, a quick detour into the recent past: my journey to Alta Gracia actually started a few years back, some 1,500 miles away, at St. John’s University (Queens), where I teach First Year Writing. Like a growing number of colleges, our campus bookstore carries a variety of Alta Gracia t-shirts with our school’s logo. Based on that connection, our Fair Trade steering committee (“St. John’s for Fair Trade”) was able to organize a live web conversation with Alta Gracia in 2017, with support and encouragement from Fair Trade Campaigns and a number of campus offices/initiatives (Learning Communities, Campus Ministries, and Academic Service-Learning). Alta Gracia employees shared stories of how their lives had been transformed by this clothing company that’s threading the way to a more ethical garment industry by paying “more than 3 times the minimum wage for apparel workers in the Dominican Republic.”
Because the event was such a success, we organized a second conversation with Alta Gracia this past March. During the discussion, Hanoi Sosa – the translator for the event and a union activist throughout Latin America – encouraged the St. John’s community to work with our bookstore and administrators to increase the number of Alta Gracia products available. And as he signed off, he invited anyone interested to visit Alta Gracia. With a holiday break approaching, I decided to take Hanoi up on his invitation and was soon on my way to DR.
My education started as soon I shook hands with Hanoi at his office in Santo Domingo, and my appreciation for his work grew steadily as we trudged through thick traffic on our journey north to Villa Altagracia (the town for which the company is named and located in). He told me of how DR’s free trade zone had enticed companies looking for cheap labor to locate some of their business operations here. And on a personal note, Hanoi shared his own story of fighting for improved working conditions when he was employed at a call center. Throughout the conversation, I was struck by his determination to build a better world for workers in the face of offshoring trends rife with labor violations.
Upon reaching Villa Altagracia’s industrial complex, we passed through a virtual ghost town of empty factory buildings, some of which had housed BJ&B, a South Korean-owned company that made hats for a number of major brands. BJ&B closed in 2007 after a protracted battle between management and workers who fought with some success to improve the deplorable wages and conditions. Thankfully, that battle was not fought in vain, for it is in one of the old BJ&B buildings that Alta Gracia now prospers. As we pulled up to this building, draped with Alta Gracia’s “Life Changing Apparel” banner, I could make out the sounds of bachata music drifting out from the factory. Sporting my dark gray Alta Gracia St. John’s tee, I was eager go inside and meet the people who made the shirt on my back.
After a quick greeting from a manager, union representative Eduardo Cabrera gave us a tour, introducing us to workers and explaining the various cutting and sewing steps that go into completing a shirt. At the time, employees were busy filling an order for the Dallas Cowboys, which impressed me, because I had mainly associated Alta Gracia with college apparel.
As we continued moving through the workstations, I noted how the general atmosphere was filled with efficiency and comfortable, positive vibes. Some workers had affixed small “Jesus Senor de Alta Gracia” (“Lord Jesus of Alta Gracia”) signs to their tables, giving a powerful, spiritual dimension to the work that happens here. And at one point, I was introduced to the workers from the recent St. John’s web conversation, who paused to chat and pose for pictures. Based on my brief but educational tour, I definitely saw evidence “of a safe and healthy workplace” and “the right [for workers] to be treated with dignity and respect on the job.”
But perhaps the most moving part of my visit came after we left the factory. Two employees, Clary Santana and Maria Flores, traveled into town with us to show how their work at Alta Gracia was impacting their lives. First stop was a laundry business that Clary opened with her husband, thanks to her “salario digno” (living wage). Just like the factory, her laundry site was abuzz with activity – and extra money for Clary’s family. From there, we drove into a residential neighborhood, where we visited the house Maria bought for her family with her Alta Gracia earnings. Both women were brimming with pride and gratitude for their accomplishments.
At the end of the day, we drove back to my hotel in Boca Chica, one of those all-inclusive resorts that stand in stark contrast to the humble homes of Villa Altagracia. I confessed to Hanoi that I was feeling more than a little guilty about my accommodations and the place’s carbon footprint (for starters, the sheer number of plastic cups used day in, day out). Hanoi added that the hotel’s employees might not be fairly compensated for their work. So, I’ve made a mental note to myself to do better for future trips. While I gave some money to a carbon-offsetting site in an attempt to make up for my flight, I can surely do better when it comes traveling in a way that aligns with my values.
Since the returning from my trip, I’ve stayed in contact with Hanoi to continue learning about Alta Gracia. When I asked if the company was setting its sights on Fair Trade certification, he replied, “That’s one of our goals for the near or midterm future. But (according to my knowledge) being certified as a fair labor factory has many requisites; one of them is that the supply chain must be comprised of Fair Trade certified suppliers, but since Alta Gracia is such a small factory, it doesn’t have that big of an impact in the market to put it in the position of requesting its suppliers to be Fair Trade certified. But that’s on our minds, both union leaders and even management at the factory.”
In terms of why colleges and universities should support carry Alta Gracia apparel, Hanoi offered, “If, as expressed in their codes of conduct, colleges and universities are committed to social justice, then they should support Alta Gracia because it is a tangible expression of justice and human dignity. Supporting Alta Gracia is an excellent way of contributing to construct a better world and to promote brotherhood and respect among men and women.”
Imbedded in the St. John’s mission is a commitment “to search out the causes of poverty and social injustice and to encourage solutions that are adaptable, effective, and concrete,” so the fact that our bookstore carries a variety of Alta Gracia shirts is a perfect fit. Moving forward, my hope is that students, staff, and faculty will press for even more Alta Gracia products, as well as prominent signage that educates shoppers about the ethics of the company. Additionally, I am looking into ways that a book about Alta Gracia entitled Sewing Hope: How One Factory Challenges the Apparel Industry’s Sweatshops can be incorporated into relevant courses. Ultimately, I am confident that Alta Gracia can get campus communities like my own thinking deeply about the producers of the world and the ethical implications of our consumer dollar.