Fashion companies become increasingly more socially conscious
After a long time spent in finger-pointing and crisis management, companies are tackling labor and environmental issues in a whole new way.
In the world of fashion, corporate social responsibility, or CSR, programs are now becoming at the center of each company’s business. As the definition of what are socially conscious practices broadens, fresh ways of being responsible have been added to the list, including better working conditions and smart environmental stewardship.
When companies “talk about the human benefit, there’s a correlation between workers who are treated fairly and paid fairly who make higher quality products,” Kindley Walsh Lawlor, vice president of social and environmental responsibility for Gap Inc., told WWD. “We’ve taken the foundation of the auditing model in the field and evolved to a stakeholder model doing more than just monitoring.”
For Gap, this means looking beyond simply wages and conditions, and questioning what kind of quality of life employees experience outside of work. The company is further attempting to be responsible by creating programs to inform customers how to practice environmental responsibility with clothing they want to discard.
“Nowadays (CSR efforts) are much more about marrying the values to the brand and what’s important to the brand,” Amy Hall, director of social consciousness for Eileen Fisher, said. Toward this end, those at Eileen Fisher attempt to build key values, such as having sustainable environmental and labor practices, into every one of the company’s decisions.
What a decade and a half ago used to be risk stewardship is now a vital part of the life of a company, integrated holistically with its programs.
“CSR has become a part of the fabric of how companies do business as opposed to a button stuck on the side somewhere,” said Randy Rankin, vice president of CSR services with Bureau Veritas Consumer Products Services, a certification organization. “It’s not about one or two people [at a company] who want to save the world, the ideologue off to the side. It has become a part of how companies look at business plans.”
The amount of companies truly committing to socially concisions programs may be low at this point, but the figure is growing. But at the same time, businesses are considering other issues.
“Everyone is talking about sustainability, but we need to talk about CSR and sustainability side by side,” said Steven Jesseph, president and chief executive officer of the Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production organization, which certifies factories. “How do you continue being a socially responsible business and making sure your supply chain is operated in a legal and ethical manner, and at the same time how do you sustain your industry and your enterprise?”
Jeff Streader, senior vice president of global sourcing at Guess Inc., believes that CSR programs have taken their toll: Worker rights have significantly increased over the course of the last ten years.
“Nobody wants to support a factory that abuses their workers or doesn’t pay their workers or where the working conditions are horrific,” Streader said. “No one wants to be associated with that, but they exist throughout our industry because not everyone is on the program.”