Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

New university shirts clean up sweatshop image

Showing school spirit for local Universities could give a big boost to workers in a developing country.  Bookstores at some schools now carry a line of logo shirts that aims to do away with the image of sweatshops.

You might have to look around to find the new socially-conscious sweatshirts and t-shirts in bookstores, though.  The designs blend in with other fan gear.  But they do stand out in other ways. 

The first is the business model.  Alta Gracia is the name of the town in the Dominican Republic where the shirts are made…and it’s the name of the brand.  Its goal is to go beyond university policies to ban sweatshops. 

“The real question is, for the folks working...what are they being paid? They may be being paid more than they otherwise would have but it’s still not a living wage.” - Bryan Pearce, CEO of the University Bookstore in Seattle.

Pearce says one of the reasons the UW bookstore will carry the new line is that the company promises to pay employees nearly $3 per hour.  That’s how much workers’ rights groups say it costs to provide for a family in the Dominican Republic.  And it’s more than 3 times the country’s minimum wage.  The company also allows workers to unionize. 

Pearce says whether these efforts are actually able to improve anything for workers is ultimately up to consumers.  

“If it turns out that folks don’t buy these products, it may not matter how the manufacturing takes place," he says.  "In order for anybody to be paid any wage, it’s going to depend on the sale of those products.”

Alta Gracia’s parent company and university bookstores say they’ll take less profit on the clothes to keep prices similar to other brands.  Pearce says he hopes that, and photos of actual, smiling workers on the tags, will convince consumers to buy into the new product. 

Right now, only 2 other schools carry alta gracia shirts - Washington State University and Seattle Pacific University

Charla joined us in January, 2010 and is excited to be back in Seattle after several years in Washington, DC, where she was a director and producer for NPR. Charla has reported from three continents and several outlets including Marketplace, San Francisco Chronicle and NPR. She has a master of journalism from University of California, Berkeley and a bachelor's degree in architecture from University of Washington.