Do Gooders: Socially Responsible Businesses

By Lindsay Warner May 20, 2015

“Thirty-four percent of consumers worldwide chose one brand over another because it was more socially or environmentally responsible. In the coming year, 67% tend to do so.” —Havas, September 2014

In the early 1980s, Patagonia co-founder Malinda Chouinard began advocating for an on-site child care center at the company’s Ventura, California, headquarters. Her idea—a radical one back in the ’80s—benefited just a handful of parents at Patagonia. But it sparked a much broader question: What were parents at Patagonia’s production facilities doing for child care?

The conversation about corporate responsibility and better working conditions started quietly. But by the early ’90s, Patagonia was digging deep into tough questions about labor issues throughout its entire supply chain. Patagonia was one of the first to start conducting regular social-compliance audits of their factories and, in 1999, joined forces with Nike, Reebok, Eddie Bauer and a handful of other big brands to form the Fair Labor Association, dedicated to protecting the rights of workers in factories in the U.S. and overseas. The FLA remains one of the cornerstones of corporate social responsibility, along with the OIA Social Responsibility Working Group, open to all companies within the global outdoor industry supply chain.

Patagonia continues to have a strong influence on creating safer, more ethical working conditions at factories. But they’re not the only ones affecting change.

The Fair Labor Association remains one of the cornerstones of corporate social responsibility, along with the OIA Social Responsibility Working Group, open to all companies within the global outdoor industry supply chain.

Mountain Equipment Co-Op

At the Vancouver-based Mountain Equipment Co-op, highly involved members not only support social responsibility—they expect it. And as one of the first companies in Canada to publish its factory list, MEC does its best to deliver on supply-chain transparency. The company further underscored its commitment to social responsibility by launching its first line of Fair Trade Certified Apparel in 2014, ensuring fair wages and safer working conditions for the men and women working on its products. As part of the Fair Trade commitment, MEC pays a cash premium directly into a special fund managed by the workers; last year in India, workers chose to use the money to buy rain jackets for the monsoon season, says social compliance manager Samantha Kuchmak. Other programs—such as college tuition assistance, medical insurance, on-site doctors and even a yoga program—directly attempt to bolster the health and well-being of workers, a policy that MEC’s members can stand behind. “The benefits of social responsibility might not be as flashy up front,” says Kuchmak. “But we consider it part of our commitment to strong social values. And we know that’s something our members are aligned with also.”

Toad&Co

Conversations about social responsibility usually revolve around factories in Asia, but at Toad&Co (formerly Horny Toad Activewear), the conversation started at home. In 1997, the company partnered with Search Inc. to found Planet Access Company, giving adults with disabilities life-skills training and work opportunities. By 1998, 100 percent of Toad&Co clothing was being selected, packaged and shipped by PAC crewmembers—as it still is today. The commitment to social programs at home also extends to Toad&Co’s relationships abroad, where factory workers enjoy benefits including day care, free schooling, on-site medical care and an equine therapy program for community members with disabilities.

Columbia Sportswear

As a leader of the OIA’s Social Responsibility Working Group and several other global CSR programs, Columbia is keenly attuned to social rights issues. Yet its large, complex supply chain encompasses 20 different countries, making it a bit tougher to appropriately tailor social responsibility programs, says Mary Bean, corporate responsibility program manager. That said, the company has honed in on one segment of its workforce in particular: its young women. A women’s empowerment group that helps provide access to women’s health education, HERproject promotes long-term, sustainable solutions to factory challenges and improves the lives of workers. The efforts have been worth it; when Columbia rates its vendors, “the factories that score well in corporate responsibility generally score well overall,” Bean says. “We also see great benefits in forming long-term factory and vendor partnerships, rather than chasing down the lowest price.”

 

Prana

In 2010, Prana became one of the first brands to offer Fair Trade Certified Apparel, starting with just one cotton T-shirt—the Soul T. This spring, the company rolled out 45 new pieces. “Social responsibility was the real driver for us to commit to Fair Trade in cotton,” says director of sustainability Nicole Bassett. Prana has also committed to buying as much cotton as possible from farmers at the time of harvest—when farmers need the capital—rather than later, when they could be forced to dump unsold Fair Trade organic cotton on the conventional market for a fraction of the price. This commitment allows more farmers to pursue Fair Trade certification, which in turn, funnels money back into their communities via the cash premium paid for Fair Trade. “Our company has grown over the past five years and so has our offering of organic, recycled and Fair Trade products—so there has been a positive reception to what we’re offering,” Bassett says.

Patagonia

Influencing social and environmental change is a major driver at Patagonia—and thanks to the brand’s marketing department, consumers know it—and have come to expect it. “There’s a real demand for products sourced in socially and environmentally sound ways—particularly from the younger generation,” says Cara Chacon, director of social and environmental responsibility at Patagonia. One of Patagonia’s largest surf vendors in Huntington Beach reported ongoing requests from customers—mostly younger females—for Fair Trade products. “Instead of buying three cheaper sweaters, they wanted to pay more for one Fair Trade sweater because they knew it was made responsibly,” Chacon says. Is that good for business? Sure. But Patagonia, which has 33 Fair Trade certified products in the spring 2015 lineup and close to 177 planned for fall 2015, was also able to put about $80,000 worth of cash premiums in workers’ Fair Trade fund. “We’ve got to figure out how to get to a living wage in all garment factories,” notes Chacon, “but by paying a little extra for Fair Trade, we’re doing the right thing and putting our money where our mouth is.”

“There’s a real demand for products sourced in socially and environmentally sound ways—particularly from the younger generation.” —Cara Chacon, director of social and environmental responsibility at Patagonia.

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