The cost of cheap clothes: Companies factoring in 'social responsibility'
Published Friday, April 26, 2013 10:01AM EDT
Last Updated Friday, April 26, 2013 11:20AM EDT
The manufacturing conditions of some clothes sold in Canada are coming under renewed scrutiny after a building that housed manufacturers of garments sold by foreign retailers – including Joe Fresh -- collapsed this week, killing hundreds.
Loblaw Companies, which owns the popular low-cost clothing brand, issued a statement in the wake of the Rana Plaza building collapse, saying it has "robust standards" in place to ensure its factories are run "in a socially responsible way, ensuring a safe and sustainable work environment."
But the company also noted more needs to be done to address the issue of "building construction or integrity" in its factories.
"Loblaw is committed to finding solutions to this situation by expanding the scope of our requirements to ensure the physical safety of workers producing our products. We want to improve and we want to find a solution that helps stop these incidents from happening," the statement said.
Just how far are companies willing to go, when it comes to social responsibility? Here are five other North American companies lauded for their social responsibility policies, and how those policies affect the way they do business:
California-based outdoor clothing manufacturer Patagonia is recognized as one of the world's leaders when it comes to environmental sustainability, using recycled and low-impact materials, employing a "greened" transportation network and offices, and one-of-a-kind fabric-recycling program.
But the company also has a robust social responsibility program, following on its mission statement to "Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, and use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis."
Here are some of Patagonia's efforts, carried out through regular visits to factories:
- Screen new factories for social and environmental compliance;
- Perform a payroll analysis at new factories and interview local workers;
- Ensure no children are employed or forced labour is taking place;
- Audit for abuse, harassment or discrimination.
"We track the minimum or prevailing wages of each country in which we make products and work toward a higher, fair or living wage in our costing negotiations with the factory."
Ten Thousand Villages (Canada)
The non-profit company was created more than 60 years ago with the goal of bringing products from artisans in developing nations around the world to markets in developed nations. Products range from clothing to fabrics, home decor and gift items.
Self-described as a company with a "conscience," Ten Thousand Villages supports small, independent craftspeople who often work from home or out of small community workshops as opposed to large sweatshops.
"Often referred to as 'Fair Trade,' our philosophy of helping to build a sustainable future is based on the principle that trade should have a conscience. Through Fair Trade, artisans receive respect, dignity and hope from working hard and earning fair value for their work," says the company’s website.
Mountain Equipment Co-op (Canada)
On its website MEC admits that "contract factories throughout the world have shortcomings. Ours are no exception."
But a statement goes on to explain that the company takes a number of steps to minimize those shortcomings and ensure workers at MEC's supply factories are fairly treated and provided with healthy and safe working conditions.
"MEC pre-screens all potential contract factories before awarding or placing any orders, and then monitors the contract factories we work with on a regular basis. MEC staff and our independent auditors watch for several kinds of violations, and if identified, take action to remedy them."
Some violations, however, are so serious that MEC is willing to sever relationships with supply factories if practices are not changed. They include:
- Unsafe conditions
- Payroll inaccuracies
- Non-payment of wages and benefits
- Child labour
- Forced labour
Sage Creek Organics (Canada)
Based in the small town of Sooke, B.C. on Vancouver Island, Sage Creek got its start when its founder Linda Bowen decided to search for affordable organic clothing for her young family.
Unable to find it, and stunned by what she learned about the environmental damage resulting from the manufacture of conventional cottons, she expanded her search for organic cotton and eventually wound up in India where she partnered with a co-op that also works with Oxfam and Greenpeace.
Sage Creek only partners with fair trade suppliers and producers in "underdeveloped regions who abide by Western standards regarding fair and decent worker's compensation, positive working conditions and using no child labour," says a statement on the Sage Creek website.
"Our practices revere and respect nature; keep children in the schools and not in the workplace; and foster an environment of integrity and consciousness.”
Yes, TOMS makes trendy shoes that are expensive and have a relatively short lifespan. But they look good AND you can buy them with a clear conscience. The company was founded in 2006 by Blake Mycoskie, who had a vision that with every pair of shoes sold, a pair would be donated to the developing world.
According to the company's website, their shoes are made in China, Ethiopia and Argentina. Like MEC, TOMS admits there are "challenges" associated with managing a global supply chain, but has checks and balances in place to ensure employees at supply factories are treated fairly.
"On an annual basis, we require our direct suppliers to certify that the materials incorporated into our products are procured in accordance with all applicable laws in the countries they do business in, including laws regarding slavery and human trafficking," states the website.
"We also clearly define appropriate business practices for our employees and hold them accountable for complying with our policies, including the prevention of slavery and human trafficking within our supply chain."