Friday, April 22, 2011

Earth Day Mixed Marketing

Happy Earth Day! For whatever reason, I never thought to explore the origins of Earth Day – something I just accepted as a yearly occurrence since I was a child. According to Wikipedia, the first Earth Day in 1970 was designed as an environmental “teach-in” on university campuses around the country.

More than 40 years later, what has Earth Day become?

Well, it certainly is a bit more visible. And it seems global, both of which are fantastic. But I wonder if we’re headed down a path where Earth Day becomes a “Hallmark holiday,” designed to generate commercial sales and absent of the original organizers’ intent.

As someone who is entrenched in “Corporate America” every day, maybe I’m experiencing this from one particular lens. Since I’m not in a school setting, I don’t know if educators still use today as a touch-point for teaching. There also does seem to be a lot of media this week that aims to educate the public about our fragile planet. In my opinion, however, the loudest Earth Day voices are the corporate ones. Has Earth Day gone corporate? If so, is this a good or bad thing?

Let’s take a look at some Earth Day messaging from the private sector:

Starbucks – Long a leader on all things CSR, Starbucks is offering free coffee to patrons who bring in a travel mug today.

Levi Strauss – The jeans pioneer is continuing to promote its Levi’s Water Tank facebook game, which draws the connection between global access to water and the amount of water that it takes to create and wash a pair of jeans.

Whole Foods Market – Almost synonymous with planet-friendly, Whole Foods is not using any disposable bags today, instead encouraging customers to bring in their own reusable bags and offering some at a discount.

BCBG – The fashion retailer has a collection of items that benefit the Sierra Club. Its “Be Chic, Be Green” campaign is visible online and in its store windows. Some of the products feature recycled materials. Others just seem to look cool.

Microsoft – The company is sparking discussion about the connection between technology and environmentalism through its blog post about cloud computing.

Old Navy – In a partnership with TerraCycle, the discount fashion house is encouraging customers to bring in old flip-flops that will be recycled into playgrounds.

No doubt, hundreds of companies are also focusing inward, encouraging employees to connect back with Mother Earth. Virgin America, CA Technologies and Verizon are three companies whose employee programs are also generating some good buzz.

On this Earth Day, it’s almost impossible to ignore the corporate voices that encourage me to recycle a little more, reduce my disposable containers or conserve energy. And whether it’s the Corporate or the Responsibility in CSR that’s driving these messages, I don’t think it’s doing any harm. I just have to remind myself that maybe a better way to celebrate is actually going outside for a hike instead of ordering a new jacket made of recycled materials.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Sex Education

Today was one of those days that make it all worthwhile. I feel inspired, that my work is meaningful and that there's a sense of purpose behind what I do.

For a bit of context, let me rewind a day. Yesterday I took one of those very touristy organized trips to the Mekong Delta where foreigners are basically bused and boated from one gift shop to another. It was a very pretty tour, but I just wish there were a more authentic way to see different parts of the world. I did, however, enjoy our tour guide's perspective on Vietnam. At one point she discussed the country's problem with population control, contributed in part by an unwillingness to discuss sex in Vietnamese culture. As a consequence, not only is unwanted pregnancy on the rise, so are STDs like HIV/AIDS.

My tour guide's comments perfectly set up today's factory visit. We recently partnered with a Vietnamese factory to invest in HERproject, a factory-based health education program for women in developing countries, and today I had the chance to observe a training session.

Since the training was conducted entirely in Vietnamese, I didn't understand the content, but I got a sense of the discussion from the condoms, leaflets and birth control pills that were being used as props and handed out. Later, I was debriefed on the content, which was pretty consistent with my junior high school health education class. It mostly concerned how to use condoms, how to avoid STDs and how to prevent unwanted pregnancy.

I was worried that the training session would be fruitless, given my understanding of the discomfort surrounding talking about sex. The women in the session, however, seemed very engaged throughout the doctor's presentation. And when it came time for questions, they were eager to learn more! The participants seemed hungry for this information and it was clear that these concepts were new to them. I was relieved to see this level of engagement and felt good that our investment was not in vain.

Today's visit also included a meeting with the factory's management team, who shared some of their experiences in implementing the program. Sure, they cited some frustrations, but most of them had to do with logistics and not the core content of the training. Everyone seemed to believe in the importance of delivering health training. There are opportunities to deliver the program more smoothly, but nothing that cannot be overcome.

But what I didn't expect was to hear the factory managers cite this investment as a potential competitive advantage. Even though the training program was launched only a few months ago, they already saw participants taking these learnings back to their families and communities. The factory was beginning to earn a reputation as a preferred employer and people in the community appreciated the added investment in worker education. In a time when all factories, across all industries, are facing tremendous challenges in recruiting Vietnamese workers, this is an obvious business benefit.

When I first considered entering the field of CSR over a decade ago, I never would have imagined that I'd spend a day at work sitting in a sex ed class in Vietnam, but today has turned out to be one of the most gratifying days of my career.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

A Model Factory

I'm in Jakarta again, this time visiting some factories we currently work with and assessing some others that are not yet approved for my company. It's unusual for me to get the chance to visit factories we're not yet working with and I'm learning that representing a potential client feels very different from playing the role of the social compliance guy who comes into a factory to see what's unacceptable.

The main difference is that factory management really directs their comments to me, the company representative, instead of the social compliance auditors who usually lead the factory tour. Management is eager to show me innovative practices, sparkling new machinery and practices that might set them apart.

The first factory we visited yesterday was one of the best I've seen from a CSR perspective. The factory managing director was eager to share with me some of the community investment work it has implemented, some at the behest of a customer, but others that it initiated to fulfill business and community needs it identified. Some of the highlights to me included the following practices:

CNG Power - Apparently, Indonesia sits on a huge pool of natural gas, so this factory converted its power supply to compressed natural gas. The factory has realized tremendous cost savings due to this transition and mentioned that the amount saved was so significant that they could not reveal how much it was!

Wastewater Treatment - Years ago, the factory realized it was having a negative impact on the environment when blue geese were appearing nearby, due to the dyestuff in its effluent. Since then, the factory invested in an on-site wastewater treatment facility that ensures all effluent is free of chemicals and harmful dyes.

Infant Mortality Campaign - Apparently, the region where this factory is located has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the country. Factory management found that some women workers would get pregnant, go on maternity leave and their babies would die. The women would suffer from extreme emotional devastation, return to work once their maternity leave was finished, then immediately try to get pregnant again, resulting in less productive workers and the potential of another few months out of the office. To combat this, the factory has embarked on an extensive infant mortality campaign, that includes not only education, but also training and nominating capable midwives for factory workers. The factory has seen great success in reducing workers' infant mortality rates, and continues to find benefit from this investment.

Community Health Clinic - After the factory realized workers would take time off to care for their sick husbands and family, it invested in a community health clinic that provides healthcare services at a substantially reduced cost. The clinic is used by factory workers, their families and others in the nearby community - a visible symbol of the factory's commitment to the community.

Outreach to NGOs - One of the most surprising initiatives is the factory's proactive outreach to local, national and international non-governmental organizations. It's tough to get large multi-national corporations to understand the potential benefits of partnering with NGOs, but this one factory already has seen the power of learning from civil society organizations.

There were some other initiatives that puts this factory among "best in class" in my mind, but what I was most impressed by was the factory manager's attitude toward these initiatives. She understood both the business and social/environmental benefits of these programs, realized where her team did not have expertise so brought in the right community partners and eagerly searched for additional ways the factory could support its workers and community.

If only more factories took this approach, I might be out of a job! But the world would be a better place.

Monday, February 14, 2011

My Friend, Internal Audit

I spent most of January working with our Internal Audit team, which was focused on uncovering risks associated with our company's social compliance program. The goal of this exercise was to ensure that the company has adequate controls in place to manage the social and environmental risks of a global supply chain.

I'd never been part of the internal audit process to this extent before, since in previous positions I only was responsible for parts of the company's CSR programs. Usually, I was audited to make sure I had properly documented any contracts and kept records on file for the appropriate number of years.

This time, however, I feel like I was working with the audit team nearly every day for a month! I would spend hours with them explaining our program and why we've set it up the way we have, educating them on potential challenges of labor relations in developing countries and walking them through the mountains of paper that I keep semi-organized in gigantic file cabinets.

Some departments really resist the scrutiny that Internal Audit places on their work, but to me, it was a good validation that we had some strong processes in place and a lesson in uncovering areas where we need to improve. At the end of the day, the team was surprised that we have only one person managing all of this work and obliquely recommended that we add additional resources.  So in the end, it was a good exercise that will hopefully get me some help!

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Obligatory Year-End Post

Apologies to my handful of loyal readers (Hi mom!) for not posting in so long! Being in retail, every part of the business heats up as we enter the Holiday period. Add to that all the typical “year end” business (budgets, next year’s goals, etc.) and the annoying tendency for all CSR events and conferences to be scheduled in Q4, it’s been tough to keep up.

But today I find myself on a plane (yet again, but this time for an extended holiday break) with some time to reflect. It’s been a full year for me – one that marked a significant amount of change, opportunity and accomplishment. I do feel like I’m laying the groundwork for some very exciting and challenging work ahead, but I want to acknowledge some of 2010’s highlights.

Net Impact The 2010 Annual Conference in Ann Arbor, MI was simply incredible. From inspirational keynote speeches by Gary Hirshberg to Majora Carter, this year’s content was top-notch and continues to move me to continue in CSR. And as a Net Impact board member, I’m privy to some exciting information that I truly believe will help launch this organization to the next level. Liz Maw is an exceptional leader and I am thrilled to be part of the team. Everyone should stay tuned to what Net Impact has in store and make an effort to attend the 2011 conference in Portland, OR – the first to be held in a convention center!

HERproject – Our partnership with HERproject has already proven to be one of the most fulfilling initiatives I’ve had the privilege to work on. Attending the kick-off meeting at a factory in Vietnam this fall was an uplifting experience and I’m so excited to see the positive impact I know this project will have on the lives of the women workers in our supply chain.

Playing Professor – I had the chance to speak to an undergraduate business class on CSR at UC Berkeley and left inspired by our next generation of business leaders. These students certainly didn’t hold back any tough questions and weren’t afraid to dig deeper when I gave unsatisfactory answers! These kinds of events not only keep me on my toes, but also help me understand the shifting expectations on companies’ CSR strategies.

Engaging our Executives – Much has been made of the need to engage a company’s executives to gain “buy in” for CSR strategies, so I was glad to have the opportunity to spend half a day with some key executives and CSR experts. The rich dialogue helped to inform our CSR strategy and helped me understand where this work can connect more significantly to our business objectives.

Engaging our Employees – I was invited to speak at our quarterly all-employee meeting last week, something that’s usually reserved for our senior-most executives. Despite my nerves (A live audience of 800, while being simulcast to offices around the country – with our C-level executives seated in the front row!), I managed to make it through the presentation without fainting or falling. And since the presentation, so many employees have reached out to say how proud they feel, working for a company that invests in our CSR initiatives.

Wool Farming – I never thought my job would take me to visiting wool farms in Australia, but learning about more sustainable wool practices was definitely an eye-opening experience. This education helped to turn our company around on a critical issue and allowed us to take a leadership position on a topic that previously had been a challenge for us to fully understand.

It’s been a busy year and I’ve been a mediocre blogger, but I’m looking for more great things to come in 2011. I’ll probably add being a more prolific blogger to my list of New Year’s resolutions, but until then, I’m going to enjoy the holiday break and I hope you all do, too!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Sustainable Wool Farming

Or ... who'd have ever thought my career would put me in such close proximity to sheep?

A few weeks ago, I went to Australia and visited several wool farms that practice sustainable land management. I learned all about the dangers of over-grazing, how both summer and winter native grasses help sustain food supply throughout the year, breeding techniques that eliminate the need for certain chemical treatments, the benefits of combining a flock of sheep with a flock of cattle (or a few alpaca!), natural ways to reduce soil erosion and that you don't call paddocks "fields."

In contrast to one of the farms we visited, the neighboring field used conventional techniques, including chemical pesticides and infrequent paddock rotation. The differences in the two fields was staggering. One was lush, with knee-high grasses and the other had only little shrubs and very short grasses.

The visits were very interesting and I learned a lot more than I ever expected to. My visit was initially to explore animal welfare issues in the wool industry, but took a truly educational turn once I had the chance to meet with farmers who are committed to improving the land they inherited from their fathers.

Coming into the trip, I didn't realize that the farms were family-run businesses, often passed down through several generations of farmers. At each farm, we were warmly greeted by the farmer, his wife and their adorable children. Over coffee or tea, we discussed issues like sustainable farming, wool prices, yarn quality and animal welfare. Then, we'd have a chance to actually see the paddocks, the sheep and field conditions.

The people I had the fortune to meet were so welcoming and open and generous that I feel very lucky to have spent time with them. For each of the three farms I've visited, it's clearly a family affair with wives and kids contributing to the overall well-being of the farm. It's actually a very idyllic lifestyle and one that's much simpler than the faster-paced city life I'm used to.

When we discuss wool and garments at work, we really don't discuss the human element of the farmers who toil away day after day and whose entire livelihoods depend on raising high quality sheep. We also don't get the chance to see how sustainable farming techniques can help replenish a countryside that has been exploited for generations before - to see how a new way of thinking is turning the land back to a lush, grassy landscape. And we certainly cannot see how much the farmers truly care for their flock and how animal welfare is an important element of how they run their business.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Health Enables Returns

Thursday was one of those days that reminds me why I love my job. I spent the day in a factory outside of Ho Chi Minh and we kicked off a new initiative with the factory: HERproject. An initiative of BSR, HERproject uses a factory-based peer-education model to improve women's health outcomes.

Essentially, factories invest in health education so that female factory workers gain a better understanding of reproductive health, nutrition and sexually transmitted diseases, among other health issues. In turn, factories experience lower absenteeism rates, reduced turnover and higher productivity, thanks to healthier workers.  And investing in women has impact beyond just those who experience the health training. Women take what they learn, apply it to their families and help to uplift entire communities.

I spent the day with factory management, BSR staff, representatives from our buying agent and the local Vietnamese NGO that will be delivering HERproject training and we discussed the plan for the upcoming year. It was simply one of those meetings where everyone walks away brimming with hope and excited for the possibilities.

After the meeting, we had a chance to tour the factory, meet some of the workers who would be participating and discuss additional outstanding issues. The factory tour also proved illuminating because it is a very well-run and organized facility.  It's one of the nicest factories I've ever visited, so I'm glad we've chosen a high-performing partner to launch this initiative with.

My company is proud to invest in this project and I feel lucky that I got to participate in the kick off.  In addition to this facility in Vietnam, one factory in Bangladesh is also implementing HERproject with our sponsorship. As we monitor the performance of these projects, I'm hopeful that we will be able to demonstrate both health benefits and business benefits so that we can continue to launch similar initiatives with other high-performing garment factories in our supply chain.