Paralleled by pressure from USAS, WRC's investigations have forced many brands to improve conditions at some factories making clothing for the college market. In 2009 and 2010, USAS achieved unprecedented victories with two of the largest companies—Russell and Nike—by pressuring their schools and even retailers to cut contracts with brands. This student-led boycott cost the corporations millions in sales until they came into compliance with the campus' codes of conduct.
This hard-won progress is promising. But it has not been easy. "This is an industry obsessed with pennies," says Scott Nova, WRC's executive director. "We've had tremendous resistance from the big labels."
USAS's victories in their campaigns against Russell and Nike suggested that college students were ready to throw their weight behind a living-wage union-made option in their purchases as well as their actions. If students were prepared to fight against brands that abused workers' rights, wouldn't they rally behind brands that respected them? That's how the idea for the Alta Gracia brand started.
For years, USAS refused to support companies claiming to make "sweatshop free" clothing because they couldn't be sure the companies would keep their commitment. Today, however, USAS, as well as the WRC, have embraced Alta Gracia as a model that proves that socially responsible clothing production is not only possible but profitable.
Alta Gracia is the first apparel company in the college market to work closely with unionized employees and pay them a living wage. It is an unusual collaboration between student, labor, and human rights activists and Knights Apparel, the nation's leading producer of college clothing, which beats Nike and Adidas in the $4 billion collegiate market.