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Living Wages, College T-Shirts, and Journalism

Debbie says:

How a story is told can be as important (or more) than the story itself. I found this when I was looking for something else, so I came to it with no specific expectations, as I might have if someone whose web page I was reading had linked to it.

Here’s the headline:

FACTORY DEFIES SWEATSHOP LABEL, BUT CAN IT THRIVE?

And the opening:


Sitting in her tiny living room here, Santa Castillo beams about the new house that she and her husband are building directly behind the wooden shack where they now live.


The new home will be four times bigger, with two bedrooms and an indoor bathroom; the couple and their three children now share a windowless bedroom and rely on an outhouse two doors away.

You have to get four paragraphs in to find out what the article is about.

Industry experts say [the Alta Gracia t-shirt factory] is a pioneer in the developing world because it pays a “living wage” — in this case, three times the average pay of the country’s apparel workers — and allows workers to join a union without a fight.

The factory is a high-minded experiment, a response to appeals from myriad university officials and student activists that the garment industry stop using poverty-wage sweatshops. It has 120 employees and is owned by Knights Apparel, a privately held company based in Spartanburg, S.C., that is the leading supplier of college-logo apparel to American universities, according to the Collegiate Licensing Company.

… the factory is a risky proposition, even though it already has orders to make T-shirts and sweatshirts for bookstores at 400 American universities.

The headline just begs to be analyzed: the phrase “sweatshop label” implies that somehow the factory isn’t defying (or even just opposing) the truth of sweatshops, but just the label. And then, “can it survive?” which is the constant running thread of the article. Even though “myriad university officials and students” are calling for just this kind of thing, and they already have orders from 400 colleges, skepticism is the order of the day.

So the headline gives us a hint of hypocrisy, followed by overt undermining of the enterprise’s chances. The opening tells us that as readers we’re supposed to have our “do-gooder” mode turned on, instead of reading to evaluate the business theory. (Note that the article is in “Global Business,” which tells us something about who’s reading it.)

If we keep reading, we find out that the owner, Joe Bozich, is a successful businessman (but the article spends more time on a health scare that apparently encouraged Bozich to reexamine his values than on the business aspects). Bozich’s company, Knights Apparel, “has made apparel deals with scores of universities, enabling Knights to surpass Nike as the No. 1 college supplier.” The company’s commitment to workers’ rights is not new.

The factory’s cost will be $4.80 a T-shirt, 80 cents or 20 percent more than if it paid minimum wage. Knights will absorb a lower-than-usual profit margin, he said, without asking retailers to pay more at wholesale.

“Obviously we’ll have a higher cost,” Mr. Bozich said. “But we’re pricing the product such that we’re not asking the retailer or the consumer to sacrifice in order to support it.”

So let’s analyze some more. Twenty percent is a huge difference in cost, but to a company selling in America, eighty cents is not a huge difference. If they passed the eighty cents on to the retailer, and the retailer passed the eighty cents on t the consumer, your t-shirt would cost you eighty cents more. I haven’t looked at t-shirts in a college bookstore for a long time, but I bet they cost about $15-20, and I bet most Americans who buy them wouldn’t really make their buying decision on the difference between $15 and $16, though $20 to $21 might be an emotional jump. However, as the second sentence of the quote above shows, you and I won’t have to make that decision. Knights is making it for us, by eating the difference.

Apparently, the “will it survive?” question is about competition: if retailers can use the same markup that they do for Nike and Adidas shirts, then the three brands will cost the same amount. So Knights faces “branding problems,” even though the entire last third of the article talks about the amount of support and excitement being generated already.

It helps to have many universities backing the project. Duke alone placed a $250,000 order and will run full-page ads in the campus newspaper, put postcards in student mailboxes and hang promotional signs on light poles. Barnes & Noble plans to have Alta Gracia’s T’s and sweats at bookstores on 180 campuses by September and at 350 this winter, while Follett, the other giant college bookstore operator, plans to sell the T’s on 85 campuses this fall.

When I was in grade school, they taught us to begin journalistic articles with who, what, why, where, and how. Here’s another framing based on that principle.

“LIVING WAGE FACTORY MAKES STRONG DEBUT IN DOMINICAN REPUBLIC”

“Joe Bozich, an American entrepreneur with a successful business background, believes that his new living wage factory in Villa Altagracia, Dominican Republic, is a good proposition for everyone involved. The factory will make college-branded t-shirts and similar gear, and will compete with Nike and Adidas for market share. Bozich’s decision to pay his workers a “living wage” instead of the minimum wage ($147/month) most Dominican Republic apparel workers get, and to absorb the price differential so that American retailers and consumers pay the same amount, is based on a mixture of his values and his entrepreneurial instincts. ‘Workers paid a fair wage, and treated like human beings, are more likely to do good work, to stay with us for a long time, and to be healthy and able to come to work every day,’ Mr. Bozich said. ‘We’d rather encourage them to unionize than spend time and money fighting an expensive battle against the people who are working for us.’ Over 250 universities have already placed orders for the t-shirts, and such varying enterprises as Barnes & Noble Bookstores and the Workers Rights Consortium are helping to publicize and promote the new gear.”

(I made up the “quotation” from Bozich, in part because I didn’t see any commercial justification for Bozich’s choices anywhere in the article.)

This article could, perhaps, then go on to discuss the improvements in Santa Castillo’s life, Joe Bozich’s fear of a brain tumor and subsequent multiple sclerosis diagnosis, and even mention some critics’ concern that Knights Apparel would face difficult competition. But it wouldn’t be a “look at the bleeding heart liberal taking a risk with no business value, not likely to succeed if it weren’t for politicized college students, many of whom may be hypocrites when it comes to the cash register.”

I’d like to see Joe Bozich succeed. I’d like to see Santa Castillo in a stable job that supports her family. And I’d like to see Steven Greenhouse (who wrote this article) discuss the choices he made in writing it.

Even more, I’d like to see workers organizing in the Dominican Republic (and elsewhere) from the ground up, forcing Nike and Adidas and other competitors to follow Knights path, or do better.

6 Responses to “Living Wages, College T-Shirts, and Journalism”

  1. Lisa Hirsch Says:

    Excellent analysis. I have two very minor additions. One is to point to economist Brad deLong’s plaintive cry “why oh why can’t we have a better press corps?”, which appears multiple times a week on his blog. The other is that sometime in the last few years, journalist started to be about The Human Story, not about who, what, when, where, etc. The kind of backing into the story you call out is extremely common to find these days. The writer of this story picked the wrong damn story to focus on and no editor called the writer out on it (unless the editors are responsible for the structure).

  2. Stef Says:

    When I was in grade school, they taught us to begin journalistic articles with who, what, why, where, and how.

    I get the impression that business journalism writers these days are taught to begin articles with whatever will cause the most fear.

  3. lisa Says:

    great analysis, debbie!

  4. Debbie Says:

    I see that too, but it doesn’t apply to this story, where Greenhouse begins with whatever will tag the article as “not really a business article.” Maybe if he’d begun with fear, it would look too much like he was writing a business article.

  5. Debbie Says:

    Not about this article, but I so want a press corps that (specifically) calls out lies instead of just reporting them. My standard conversational example is, “But he has produced his birth certificate. Here’s a copy. Tell me what you think about this in light of what you just said.”

  6. Lisa Hirsch Says:

    I agree with you about pointing out lies. It’s not the press corps’ job to provide “balance,” it’s to report on the accuracy of what people say.

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