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Feel Good About Your Clothes: Learning About Corporate Responsibility

A while back, someone used the open thread to ask where she could find reasonably priced clothes that weren’t made in a sweatshop. Another commenter suggested checking a store’s corporate responsibility page before shopping there. Corporate responsibility page? I had never heard of such a thing. Apparently, most stores have a website with details about how they don’t buy clothes from sweatshops.

I am oversimplifying here. The corporate responsibility pages I have found have lots and lots of information about how they don’t use sweatshops, forced labor, child labor, and/or unsafe working conditions, not to mention how they are reducing, reusing and recycling. It is truly a wealth of information, all packaged up in corporate-speak.

The corporate language is a fascinating thing to me. When you detangle it all, most of it  translates to, “We don’t want to be assholes, but we can’t control everything and still give you cheap clothes. If you find out that one of our suppliers is chaining young people to sewing machines, we have hundreds of pages of documentation to prove that we are doing the best we can and we promise to try even harder to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.” Again, I oversimplify, but I’ve been navigating Internet labyrinths and reading a lot of very wordy documents and my brain is a little silly right now.

Why Internet labyrinths? I’m glad you asked. You would think that something important like this would be easy to find from the home page of any retailer. If someone wants assurance that their clothing isn’t evil, they should be able to find out about all the safeguards you have put into place without any hassle, right? Wrong. For some reason, the actual details are buried under pages and pages of platitudes.

Most of the clothing I buy, for myself and my kids, comes from Target and Old Navy, so those were the first two places I checked. I was especially interested in Target, because I get so many other things there as well, so I went there first. Here are the links I had to follow to find actual, concrete vendor guidelines, starting from the home page:

  • Target.com has a number of “Company Information” links at the bottom of the page. I chose “Community” as the most likely suspect.
  • “Community” has a link in the sidebar for “Corporate Responsibility.” Score! That was easy, now I can find out all I want to know.
  • Psych! The “Corporate Responsibility” link takes you to a page where you can choose to view the 2009, 2008, or 2007 Corporate Responsibility reports, in either HTML or PDF formats. I chose 2009, in HTML.
  • This brought me to a very nice letter from the Chairman, President and CEO, Gregg Steinhafel. This introductory page had a sidebar where I had the option about finding out more about, among other things, Social Responsibility, Environmental Responsibility and Economic Responsibility.  opted for “Social” because I was most curious about how overseas workers were treated.
  • Again, another introductory letter, this time unsigned, with options in the sidebar. About now, I was feeling like I had started a corporate Choose Your Own Adventure quest, so I kicked down the door with the “Global Sourcing: Standards for Worldwide Partners” link.
  • I foolishly thought this would lead me to the standards for worldwide partners. Nope, wrong again. It was another introduction. This time I had to choose from a set of links in a sub-header just over the intro text. If you follow all six links in the sub-header, there is enough information to bore you stupid, unless you are really into this sort of thing. The one I found most helpful was #3, “Standards of Vendor Engagement.”

Finally! I have found tangible, definite statements like “No forced or compulsory labor,” and “No physical or mental punishment used against employees.” Unfortunately, when it comes to things like compensation, discrimination, and workplace safety, all they promise is that they “encourage” their business partners to behave in a manner that we would consider respectable. “Local laws” come up more than once so, if we read between the lines, there are probably some practices that we would find objectionable, but the factories are compliant with local laws and Target is doing their best to convince them that it is a good idea to treat people right. It’s not a perfect system, but it could be worse.

Old Navy was my second target, and I really had my fingers crossed because I love their clothes. At first it looked like it would be easy. OldNavy.com has a Social Responsibility link right on the home page. I got all cocky and clicked on through, only to find another general statement to the effect that Old Navy has social responsibility standards and I could learn more about them in the Gap Inc. Code of Vendor Conduct. I won’t make you read through another description of all the pages I visited before I found what I was looking for, I’ll just give you the short version with all the links in the chain:

OldNavy.com –> Social Responsibility –> Gap Inc. (to find their Code of Vendor Conduct) –> Supply Chain –> Code of Vendor Conduct –> Code of Vendor Conduct again (just in case you didn’t really mean it the first time)

The Gap Inc. (which includes Gap, Old Navy, Piperlime, Banana Republic and Athleta if you didn’t know) Social Responsibility site seems to be more geared to the public. It is more educational as far as the history and cultural differences involved in the garment industry overseas, but I was unable to find a clear list of what they will and won’t accept from their partner factories. I read about why they have a Code, how they came up with the Code, how many factories were up to Code, how they changed the Code when they found people sneaking around it, but I don’t think I ever found the actual Code of Vendor Conduct. But they promise repeatedly that they won’t knowingly buy anything made by children working in hazardous conditions (or adults working in hazardous conditions either).

The impression I got after all my reading about responsibility in the garment industry, and I did look more than just these two, is that, unless you are willing to plant some cotton seeds and Little Red Hen your way to new clothes, you are going to have to take it on faith that these corporations are doing the best they can. The system leaves a lot to be desired, but it does sound like they are trying to change things for the better. Sadly, I don’t know where you all like to shop and I can’t give you details about every single store out there. I am hoping that this post will help you navigate the murky waters of corporate responsibility for yourself if you are interested.

By [E]SaraB

Glass artisan by day, blogger by night (and sometimes vice versa). SaraB has three kids, three pets, one husband and a bizarre sense of humor. Her glass pendants can be found at www.etsy.com/shop/AngryOwlStudio if you're interested in checking it out.

5 replies on “Feel Good About Your Clothes: Learning About Corporate Responsibility”

Thanks, SaraB for writing this article! I haven’t done a lot of research on the topic, but from what little reading I have done, it scares me how widespread this problem is. It seems like every major retailer where I like to shop makes use of unethical practices to sell me cheap clothes that I can afford with my limited budget.

You might get more objective results by going directly to the Institute for Global Labour & Human Rights, rather than relying on a company’s self-reporting. There are separate tabs for the researched reports that give them their information, the press reports that describe companies’ public reactions, etc, and the overall status of the campaigns they mount to try to end these abuses. Video testimony and transcripts are there as well.

Here, for instance, you can learn about the current status of the so-called “Rape Factory” in Jordan that supplies clothing to Target, Hanes, Macy’s and Wal*Mart. [Please be aware before clicking that the details are, as should be obvious, very very disturbing.]

Indeed, IGLHR is a great resource for knowing what goes into making your clothes incredibly inexpensive. Corpwatch is also a great resource ( they were the first organization to catch forever 21’s unsafe and unsanitary conditions, as well as exposing the made in la label, which clothes were really made in cambodia). Its also worthwhile to mention where corporate profit is being donated to politically, like Target donating Rep. Tom Emmer, specifically to get his “anti-gay” campaign off the ground, or how Urban Outfitters ( Anthropologie, Free People -etc.) owned by Richard Hayne not only uses child labor, but donates to the tea party, anti abortion, anti-day platforms. Oye.

Its hard because we don’t always know what is happening behind the scenes and sometimes we find out too late. I think its less about what makes us “feel good” and just trying to be aware as much as we can be and making choices from there on out. Most clothes that are made “organically” ( whatever that means these days) are incredibly expensive or if made in the US, are either clouded by some other ethical problems ( American Apparel).

I’m not sure how you solve the problem other then putting pressure on these companies when needed. Again, its hard when everything is so vastly connected by globalization and corporate crunching.

Thank you both for suggesting these resources, I will definitely look into both IGLHR and Corpwatch.

Coco, the title for this post came about after a friend told me that she felt horrible for buying something that may have been made by child labor. Upon reflection it does reek a bit of taking something that hurts other people and making it “All About Me.” Being a responsible consumer isn’t about making yourself feel good, it’s about doing what we can to show businesses that we won’t support cruel or unsafe practices.

When I worked at H&M, we got a whole training session about corporate responsibility, probably because several years ago the company got a lot of bad press because they got caught using child labor, I think. They were very eager to show us employees how they don’t do that anymore, though. We watched a video about how H&M monitors the factories where their clothes are made, and if any underage children are found working there, the company provides them education and a stipend for their family (since they were most likely working to support their family) until they’re old enough to work, and then they give them a legit job.

Is all that just meant to make me feel better about who I worked for? Maybe. Depends on whether you’re willing to trust any big corporation or not. I took them at their word.

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