Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

UMass a part of new ethical apparel approach

When Joe Bozich founded Knights Apparel back in 2000, profit was the name of the game. As CEO, Bozich deftly maneuvered the company to the front of the collegiate apparel pack, ahead of giants such as Nike and Adidas, making Knights the largest supplier of college sportswear nation-wide. That all changed shortly after he started the company.

While attending his son’s baseball game, Bozich suddenly lost his sight. It was multiple sclerosis.

Shortly after his diagnosis, a close friend and his own brother passed away. Three blows were too much for Bozich’s son to handle, and he began to suffer anxiety attacks.

For Bozich, the tragedies were an epiphany.

“I thought of people who were going through the same thing as my child and me,” said Bozich in an interview with the New York Times, “Fortunately, we had the resources for medical help, and I thought of all the families that didn’t.”

“I started thinking that I wanted to do something more important with my business than worry just about winning market share…That seemed kind of empty after what I’ve been through. I wanted to find a way to use my business to impact people that it touched on a daily basis,” added Bozich

Teaming up with Scott Nova, the head of the Worker Rights Consortium – a group of 186 universities which pressure factories to treat workers fairly – Bozich set out to make a difference.

Nova and Bozich turned their attention to Alta Gracia, a small village in the Dominican Republic that suffered massive layoffs after the Korean owned BJ&J apparel factory closed, searching for cheaper labor markets.

According to 2008 U.S. State Department report, the current minimum wage in the Dominican Republic is approximately 85 cents an hour.

Collaborating with former executives of J.P. Stevens Textile Corporation, Milliken & Company and Gerber Childrenswear, the team organized a $500,000 renovation of the Dominican Republic factory. Every effort was made to create a safe and comfortable working environment for the community. Adequate lighting and ventilation systems were installed and all seamstresses were provided ergonomic chairs, originally suspected to be for bosses by the wary workers. Most impressive of all, the factory would now be paying a living wage.

As Martiza Vargas, leader of the Dominican Republic workers union, said in a press release, “At Alta Gracia, we have so much more space, better ventilation, extractors to make sure there’s no dust in the air, properly marked exits and escape routes in case of emergencies, new bathrooms in good condition, and more importantly, we have management that treats us with a lot of respect.”

Bozich has defined a living wage as one that allows, “an employee’s need to meet all of life’s necessities,” in a teleconference organized by Fenton, a PR firm dedicated to educating the public on a variety of issues.

According to the NYT report, workers now make over three times the standard minimum wage in free trade zones, allowing the community to reinvest in infrastructure and education for their children.

Best of all, workers were afforded the right to organize into a union. Under the factory’s previous owners, even suspicion of unionization could result in beatings or layoffs, reported the NYT. All of these benefits, however, come at the expense of Knights’ bottom line.

At current rates, each shirt costs about $4.80 cents to produce, 20 percent more than the product would cost if the factory paid its workers minimum wage. Sold at a wholesale price of $8, Knights is taking a hit to its bottom line. However, the company accepts this as a necessity to paying its workers a living wage. “We could have given the community a check for $25,000 or $50,000 a year and felt good about that. But we wanted to make this a sustainable thing,” said Don Hodge, president of Knights Apparel, to the NYT.

As of now, Barnes & Noble College Booksellers have the Alta Gracia line at 180 campuses nation-wide, including the University of Massachusetts, and the company hopes to increase the number of campuses participating in the Alta Gracia project by an additional 170 campuses by the winter. Follett Higher Education Group, another large collegiate retailer has Alta Gracia’s products at approximately 85 campuses.

UMass Amherst is one of the 255 campuses to sell the Alta Gracia apparel line.

In an effort to raise public awareness, Knights plans to release a video and web documentary highlighting the benefits the new factory brings to workers’ lives. Furthering awareness, T-shirt tags will feature pictures of employees and the message “Your purchase will change our lives.” The brand has also recently been endorsed by the Worker Rights Consortium, which has never publicly backed a single brand name in its history.

Max Calloway can be reached at [email protected].

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  • J

    johnSep 20, 2010 at 2:40 am

    Maybe what I meant to say was could the write have any less of back-bone??

  • J

    johnSep 20, 2010 at 2:39 am

    This article really touched my heart; I never realized the injustice that was involved in the fashion industry. The next time I visit the bookstore I’m buying one an Alta Gracia shirt. Thank you Maw for writing such a great article!