Corporate social responsibility has become more mainstream and developed a deeper sense of purpose in the past few years, and we should acknowledge the progress companies and their brands have achieved in this area. When it comes to the “people, planet, profit” mantra, the environment is clearly front and center on many companies’ agendas; more companies and their portfolio of brands are tackling social issues in their communities as well as overseas.
Nevertheless, as more consumers scrutinize how their favorite brands’ products evolve from sourcing to factory to store shelf, it is more important than ever that these companies build goodwill with employees throughout their supply chain. The ethical reasons are obvious: The ongoing Foxconn/Apple controversy, as well as the recent tragic fires in and collapse of a Bangladesh garment factory, are a few of the incidents raising consumers’ awareness about their favorite products’ impacts on people and communities. Consumers increasingly demand that their products be sourced, manufactured and marketed ethically.
Some brands are taking note. H&M, for example, claims it is improving the lives of workers who make millions of the company’s branded garments in Bangladesh. But considering H&M’s revenues and market share, the provision of financial aid to 20 Bangladeshi college students is at best a microscopic lift for social good, considering the company’s overall impact in the country. And while informing over 570,000 workers (and counting) about fire safety and their basic rights sounds compassionate, plunking a DVD player in a break room and describing such action as “training” is a stretch. Some would describe these programs as corporate social responsibility; but treating workers decently should be a given for any company. Basic human decency is no reason for any company or its public relations arm to be boastful, and calling such programs "ethical" overlooks the fact these are actions companies should be taking in the first place.
But beyond ethics and moral decency, there are pragmatic reasons why companies should boost the quality of life for workers within their supply chains. As the standard of living across the world increases, so does the cost of labor, and more workers are in a position to ask for increased benefits and wages. The gut reaction of many factory owners and supply chain managers is to pull up stakes and relocate to a country where wages are lower and regulations are less stringent. But such a move in this age of transparency not only risks dismaying stakeholders, it can affect the company’s bottom line: In this age of social media and transparency, more consumers are taking action by supporting companies committed to a triple bottom line approach. A smart long-term strategy is to work with suppliers to develop progressive programs to ensure workers in the farthest reaches of a company’s supply chain are treated just as well as employees in their corporate offices.
Timberland is one brand addressing the daily work and life challenges of supply chain workers. Working closely with suppliers, Timberland’s staff in the U.S. and abroad partner with many factory owners on a variety of initiatives from wellness to life skills.
Confronting quality-of-life issues is critical because of the impact garment manufacturing has on families: In China alone, 50 million children are separated from their familes as parents move to larger cities to find work. To address this, Timberland launched a “summer camp” for the children of workers employed at various suppliers’ factories in China. The first camp was so successful it has become an annual event for which Timberland employees volunteer their vacation in order to participate. Timberland also partners with NGOs such as Verité to organize programs that help women employees balance the stress of life on the factory floor and tension within their households.
One way in which companies can gauge the needs of their suppliers’ employees is by simply asking them. After an assessment of its factories in northern Vietnam, Timberland’s Supplier Sustainability Team realized access to clean drinking water was employees’ most pressing need. Timberland’s partner on water issues is Planet Water Foundation (PWF), with which the company had previously worked on clean water challenges in India. Last year in Hai Phong, Timberland, PWF and local leaders installed two water towers at local schools, where employees and local residents would have easiest access.
Onsite gardening and the raising of food and vegetables are hardly relegated to trendy offices and supermarkets in North America and Europe. One of Timberland’s knitwear suppliers in Zhuhai, in southern China, transformed barren land around the factory into an “eco-garden” where fruits and vegetables are tended and eventually end up in the factory’s cafeteria. The grounds also have pavilions where employees can take breaks and hold parties.
It is up to brands to work closely with their suppliers and other stakeholders, including NGOs, to figure out what kinds of programs will be most beneficial, depending on a particular region or even an individual factory. And while these examples of Timberland’s work appear to be of a token effort, collectively these programs, along with others throughout the company’s supplier base, offer a solid example of how brands can have a positive impact on the lives of workers who create their products a world away from where they are eventually sold.