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.