The rise of consumer power and CSR

A social compliance manager explains her role
By Samantha Kuchmak
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 09/23/2016

By Samantha Kuchmak

With more and more consumers asking where their clothes come from and how they’re made, clothing retailers around the world are taking positive steps to ensure their global sourcing practices are socially and environmentally responsible.

It’s a positive step in the retail clothing industry, resulting in greater accountability and transparency and improvements in global working conditions. 

As social compliance manager for MEC (Mountain Equipment Co-op), the Vancouver-based outdoor retailer, I travel to countries all over the world including India, Thailand, Cambodia, Taiwan, China, Vietnam and the United States where our company works with factories manufacturing MEC-branded product. 

Working closely with the director of sourcing, our team strives to ensure all finished goods suppliers meet or exceed our Supplier Code of Conduct. Our goal is to ensure the clothing and products we produce or source respect the environment and the people who make them.

Initiated this year, we are expanding our scope of work to our material suppliers. 

It’s an ongoing and collaborative process where we work closely with the factories to ensure local working conditions are ethical, fair and just, with workers respected, paid properly and working in safe conditions. 

Working closely with partners 
A key component to ensure compliance is conducting factory audits before we work with a facility partner. Once a factory is nominated by our sourcing and buying experts, we undertake a pre-sourcing audit. Ensuring there are no unacceptable violations such as mandatory overtime, payment below minimum wage or the use of child labour, we give the go-ahead to our sourcing team to begin working with the factory, and we continue supporting the factory work through the corrective action plan.

MEC’s program’s standards and policies have been adopted from the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the Fair Labor Association (FLA). While we strive to set the bar with high standards, it is important to note we do not operate on a pass or fail program. It’s common for factories to have compliance challenges. We recognize this and will work with factories to help them address the challenges and find solutions. 

Examples might be high overtime hours, lack of a system to address employee grievances, poor chemical management, improper storage of flammable materials or a lack of personal protective equipment such as ear plugs, goggles and needle guards. Our program encourages continuous improvement with all factory partners. 

When starting a relationship with a new factory, MEC aims to create long-term partnerships based on open communication, transparency and respect. In support of this, third-party audits are conducted at least once every 18 months, capacity-building programs and training are developed specifically for factory partners, and we collaborate where we can with other brands and retailers. 

Empowering local communities 
Close monitoring of factory conditions and employee practices is just one part of ensuring responsible business practices. My team and I work closely with workers, factory management, government officials and non-profit organizations such as Fair Trade USA, Better Work and the Fair Labor Association. Together, we strive to empower workers and factories to develop and implement sustainable programs and practices benefiting workers.

Over the past five years that I’ve worked in social responsibility, I’ve noticed a positive upward shift in how products are sourced and produced.

I’ve seen brands and factories collaborate more, moving towards equal partnerships. This approach is crucial because it allows everyone to share experiences and learn from each other.

It also improves efficiency, allowing people to focus their time and energy on capacity-building projects and training. In 2015, 58 per cent of our audits were shared or accepted by other brands and programs such as Fair Trade USA, the FLA and the World Federation of Sporting Goods Industry. 

Growth in fair trade 
Aligned with our sustainability programs at MEC, Fair Trade USA is one of the newer programs we are supporting; growing our offering of MEC products that are fair trade-certified each season for members. 

When a consumer buys a product that is fair trade-certified, he is supporting a fresh approach based on a partnership between producers and consumers. It’s a market-based approach to help end poverty by ensuring a minimum price for products sold; putting more money directly into the hands of the farmers and workers who produce the certified items.

The rise in certified products such as tea, coffee and fruits and vegetables has ballooned over the past decade. There are now more than four million fair trade-certified products in the global marketplace. Between 2010 and 2015, Fair Trade USA had certified 24 factories, directly impacting more than 20,000 workers. 
Improving livelihoods 

A key component of a Fair Trade program is the fair trade premium, which ranges from one to 10 per cent of the price of the product when it leaves the factory. Paid by the company on top of the price of the product, the premium goes directly into a worker-managed bank account.

Workers vote on how to use this money to address their most important needs.
It could mean financing women’s health services or setting up a scholarship fund or daycare for the workers’ children. It’s a fantastic program that has a huge impact on improving the lives of workers and their families. 

For example, the premiums from the sales of MEC’s first fair trade-certified clothing contributed to an account that allowed workers at the Pratibha Syntex factory in India to purchase 2,711 raincoats for the monsoon season in 2014.
Seeing these kinds of direct impacts and improvements in local communities is one of the most rewarding parts of my job. 

Social responsibility 
Over the past several years, I’ve seen a heightened emphasis of companies’ commitment to corporate social responsibility (CSR); building sustainability directly into strategic and annual plans. It’s simply becoming the new norm on how to do business.

It’s also becoming a much more complex field requiring an in-depth understanding of labour, health and safety and international development issues. I am learning every day and it’s fascinating to find out more about different countries and cultures and their challenges and opportunities.

Through the networking I’ve done attending various conferences and trade shows and factories I’ve visited, I’ve built a wide and supportive network of contacts from other brands and companies. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked for their support or insight in how they’ve worked through an issue or developed a program and rolled it out in their supply chain.

The mutual support and sharing of information and best practices has been fantastic. It reinforces that all companies, even competitors, have a shared stake in creating a global environment where products are produced responsibly and workers and local communities are treated with dignity and respect.

I am excited to be working in a rapidly evolving industry that respects the power of consumers, the rights of workers and believes in giving back and helping to create a more sustainable, ethical approach to business. 

We’re only scratching the surface of what we can collectively achieve, with a lot of exciting developments set to happen in the decades to come.

Samantha Kuchmak is the social compliance manager at Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC), a Vancouver-based outdoor retail co-operative. For more information, please contact Tory Nash at tory@nkpr.net. 

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