Alta Gracia: Improving Lives, One Shirt at a Time

May 25, 2011
Santa Castillo and her children with Joel Friedman, Patrick Gross and Joel Kriner
Santa Castillo and her children with Joel Friedman, Patrick Gross and Joel Kriner

Santa Castillo stood on the dirt floor of the one-room, corrugated-tin roof shanty that lacked both a kitchen and running water explaining that, until recently, this tiny dwelling was the home she shared with her husband, mother and two children.

Castillo then escorted a handful of Barnes & Noble executives down the street to her new home, a spacious two-bedroom house with a cement floor, kitchen, and bathroom. With a broad grin she expressed her appreciation for what has changed her life so dramatically. “I thank God every day for the opportunity to work there,” she said.

Castillo works at the Alta Gracia factory in the town of Villa Altagracia in the Dominican Republic. Alta Gracia (a division of Knights Apparel) manufactures apparel for the college marketplace. What sets this factory apart from others like it is the “living wage” it pays its workers. Simply put, a living wage enables an employee to afford adequate food, clean water, clothing, shelter, health care, child care, and education for themselves and their families.

Workers at the Alta Gracia factory
Workers at the Alta Gracia factory

Barnes & Noble College executives Joel Friedman, Patrick Gross, and Joel Kriner, and Knights Apparel CEO, Joseph Bozich, recently traveled to the Dominican Republic to tour the factory, present employees with a plaque of appreciation, and to see, first hand how this project has changed so many lives. Barnes & Noble College was an early partner in Knights Apparel’s efforts to develop and launch Alta Gracia.

“We were given a tour of Santa’s former home – a small one-room house,” said Joel Friedman, Vice President of General Merchandising & Store Construction/Design for Barnes & Noble College. “There was no bathroom, so the family had to use a neighbor’s down the street. By contrast, her new home has two bedrooms, a bathroom, and a working kitchen. To see the impact this project has had on people’s lives is quite moving and truly inspirational.”

Alta Gracia pays its workers about three-and-a-half times the average salary of apparel workers in the Dominican Republic. For Castillo, that has made the difference between going to bed hungry and feeding her entire family three meals a day. Alta Gracia workers are also free to join a union without interference or reprisals from management.

During an emotion-filled meeting at the factory, workers spoke of what earning a living wage has given them. Many spoke of the life-changing opportunities that seemed simply unattainable before, such as indoor plumbing, sending a child to college, or paying off their debt at the grocery store.

“It was a very emotional meeting,” said Friedman. “This is not a buying and selling relationship. This is about changing people’s lives. Our goal is to grow the business so more workers will be needed – and more lives can be changed for the better.”

Alta Gracia workers are presented with a plaque from Barnes & Noble College
Alta Gracia workers are presented with a plaque from Barnes & Noble College

With approximately 130 employees, the Alta Gracia factory has broken new ground as a pioneer in ending the use of poverty-wage sweatshops. The privately-held Knights Apparel company is the leading supplier of college-logo apparel to American universities, according to the Collegiate Licensing Company. Knights chief executive, Bozich, founded the factory after a series of life changes, including his own diagnosis with multiple sclerosis.

Barnes & Noble College orders more than half of the products produced by Alta Gracia, which are sold in over 200 of our bookstores, including Harvard, University of Delaware, University of Pennsylvania, University of Albany-SUNY and Penn State. All of the brands sold in our bookstores currently meet labor standards set by the Workers Rights Consortium (WRC), an independent labor rights monitoring organization.

Alta Gracia LogoBarnes & Noble College is committed to fair labor standards and has been recognized as an industry leader in the effort to eliminate sweatshops used to produce college apparel. We are a member of the Fair Labor Association (FLA) and since 1998, we have required ALL vendors who supply products to our stores to adopt the FLA’s Code of Conduct. This Code of Conduct requires strict adherence to workers’ rights.

Learn more about Alta Gracia by visiting their website at