Who should be held accountable for promoting labor, environmental, and social justice within the fashion industry? A case study.
(Mis)placing the Blame
The European Commission defines corporate social responsibility, or CSR, as “a concept whereby companies integrate social and environmental concerns in their business operations and in their interaction with their stakeholders on a voluntary basis” (Richey & Ponte 124). Essentially, CSR is a part of a business model strategy that attempts to bring good publicity to a company via community outreach or a promise to attack issues in their respective industry. In the context of the fashion industry, companies’ CSR initiatives generally fall along the lines of sustainability, better labor practices, and charitable work. However, many of the companies within the fashion industry don’t necessarily uphold their CSR promises through all respects of their business; companies get away with atrocities by claiming distance by subcontracting and feigning ignorance. The companies aren’t the only source of blame though; there are many independent organizations that are supposed to enforce CSR initiatives as well as ensure the upholding of basic labor laws. The blame could also fall on the consumers of the socially irresponsible companies; without customers’ money, businesses cannot survive, giving customers a larger power over companies than is often recognized. So, in terms of promoting labor, environmental, and social justice within fashion industry, who should be held accountable? Through a case study of Sevenly.org, a charitable fashion e-commerce business, and WRAP, the independent auditing company that certifies fashion companies as upholding labor standards, an understanding of who should be held accountable for the violations of human, environmental, and labor rights within the fashion industry can be made.
Sevenly.org is a fashion company founded in 2011 “based on a simple, core belief that ‘People Matter’” (Sevenly.org). The company was founded by Dale Partridge and Aaron Chavez and bases its production in the United States of America. It conducts its business solely through online shopping and is known for its seven-day campaigns in which, each week, the company partners with a charitable organization to design an article of clothing. The garment is sold as both a tool to raise awareness for the charity and as a source of money for the organization, as Sevenly donates seven dollars to the charity for each item purchased in that charity’s name. To choose these charities, Sevenly both reaches out to prominent campaigns, like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and the National Parks Foundation, and allows charities to apply to be featured on their website (Sevenly.org).
Sevenly was most successful between the years of 2012 and 2014, when it was named “America’s Most Social Small Business” by Mashable.com. This success was largely due to the company’s involvement in social media at a fortuitous moment. In a 2014 interview with Mashable, Chavez and Partridge mentioned being able to attract “a half-million to one million visitors to the Sevenly site every month” thanks to social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube (Mashable.com). Their heavy focus in the media enabled the company to sell 864 shirts in their first campaign, raising $6,125 for the International Justice Mission campaign. Since then, Sevenly has “raised over $4 million, created billions of cause-related impressions, and touched nearly 2 million lives” through their works with over eighty-nine charities (Sevenly.com).
Today, Sevenly is a relatively unknown organization that is “being hounded by a customer service crisis” due to a backlog of orders, refund requests, and shipping delays, according to social media strategists at Satterfield Group Media (Satterfieldgroup.com). This is due to their unreliable strategy of cause marketing, which attempts to take advantage of the consumer’s desire to contribute to social change. Similar to the viral responses to Kony 2012 and Cecil the Lion, Sevenly’s marketing strategy sparked an immense initial response but did failed to cultivate and build upon the response which resulted in the “quick and quiet death” of the company’s movement (Satterfieldgroup.com). This rapid decline in popularity showed the unsustainability of the organization and prevented the company from upholding many of its promises, most jarringly, its devotion to donating seven dollars per article of clothing bought. Now their prominent method of donating involves only seven percent of their profit per article, roughly estimating to be less than three dollars donated per bought item.
While Sevenly’s most blaring problem is their company’s unsustainability, there has been criticism of the charities to which the company has donated, most notably Autism Speaks. According to the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN), “Autism Speaks has a long and continued exclusion of Autistic voices from its work on autism,” portraying autism in a violent and tragic light and spending “only 4 cents on every dollar donated to them [on] supporting autistic people and . . . families” (AutisticAdvocacy.org). Individuals familiar with Sevenly’s campaigns have shared these concerns and have seen them mirrored in Sevenly’s organization, with one autistic customer of Sevenly -under the pseudonym of The Caffeinated Autistic- reporting on their blog page that Sevenly “didn’t listen to a word that autistic people . . . were saying” despite having their Facebook page “flooded by autistic people and neurodiversity advocates” who have provided factual information pointing to the fallacies of Autism Speaks to implore Sevenly to stop partnering with them (TheCaffeinatedAutistic.wordpress.com). The level of unresponsiveness from Sevenly even prompted ASAN to release a statement against Sevenly, which called for a boycott of the website as well as a call to action to criticize Sevenly’s selection of Autism Speaks via emails to the company’s CEOs. However, is Sevenly responsible the actions of the charities it donates to? Or is the company guilt free, as its sole mission is to raise money for the organizations to use how they see fit? A further examination of corporate social responsibility, specifically corporate philanthropy, the category that applies to Sevenly’s CSR, , can be used to help determine where the accountability lies.
Corporate Social Responsibility: Corporate Philanthropy
As mentioned earlier, CSR is a business strategy that attempts to hold corporations socially responsible for their actions while bolstering the public opinion of companies. A facet of CSR, corporate philanthropy, which is defined as the “activities that companies do to benefit the communities where they are located” in Lisa Ann Richey and Stefano Ponte’s book Brand Aid: Shopping Well to Save the World, sets a framework that allows for a deeper understanding about where the accountability lies in the case of Sevenly (Richey & Ponte 124).
In Brand Aid, Richey and Ponte explore the evolution of corporate philanthropy from the nineteenth century to the present day. They note that corporate philanthropy has its roots in the practices of industrialists such as Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, who believed that wealthy entities had the responsibility to give back to society by improving the conditions of vulnerable peoples, like the poor and disabled. While this way of thinking was initially seen as too ambitious and unnecessary, in the 1960s journalist found ways to get the popular press interested in labor issues, such as environmental damage and the mistreatment of third-world laborers, which inspired Americans to put pressure on companies to demonstrate their social worth in order to change the negative perceptions that the public’s discovery of the labor violations incited. After companies acknowledged the profitability of CSR, they began to develop corporate codes of conducts in an attempt to show their morality and bring in more revenue. Over the past two decades, there has been a “mushrooming of cause-related marketing,” which, as briefly mentioned before, is marketing that plays upon consumers’ desires for social change (Richey & Ponte 126). As Richey and Ponte put it, “in cause-related marketing, the marketing of a brand, company, product, or service is tied directly to a social cause, most often with a portion of the sales going to support the cause” (126). This most directly reflects Sevenly’s business model, as the company inserted itself in a mutually beneficial relationship with nonprofit charity organizations to strengthen the company’s brand reputation and profit margin while increasing the charities funding, media exposure, and credibility.
While companies donating to charities seems like (and is) a good thing, CSR in the form of corporate philanthropy sometimes serves as a disguise or a distraction from the company’s malpractices. When corporations practice what Richey and Ponte call “distant” and “disengaged” philanthropy, they are directing their attention toward outside issues as opposed to addressing the issues within the fashion industry head-on (Richey & Ponte, 129). Oftentimes the companies that donate the most and appear to be the most charitable have the worst issues in terms of treatment of their labor forces and environmental impact (Richey & Ponte, 128). In these instances, the companies are using their CSR initiatives to distract the public from their violations. In Looking behind the Label, Tim Bartley, Sebastian Koos, Nic Summers, Hiram Samel, and Gustavo Setrini suggest that businesses can take advantage of this distraction thanks to “conscientious consumerism,” or the consumer practice of “viewing their purchases as a way to express some sense of ethical . . . responsibility” (3). Bartley and Koos argue that conscientious consumers need to become more aware of what they are buying into, as companies are taking advantage of the positive marketing that comes along with CSR goals while failing to implement these standards. The authors are cautious to put the blame solely on the companies, however, stating that consumers are simply “acting on a vague sense of trying to do good” and “[relying] on shopping to change the world” as opposed to going out into the world and taking action or even checking to make sure companies are fulfilling their ethical promises (Bartley et al, 5).
Looking back on Sevenly through the lenses of Brand Aid: Shopping Well to Save the World and Looking behind the Label, accountability falls on both Sevenly and its consumers. In terms its CSR structure, Sevenly appears to benefit from other people’s morals, hiding its negative qualities while making money off of social causes. On the other hand, the majority of the complaints found on Sevenly’s news feeds on various social media platforms involve the backlog of its production as opposed to Sevenly’s selection of charity organizations. Does this then shift the accountability onto the consumer? It appears as if Sevenly’s consumers are more concerned with the material proof that they helped create social change via shopping than the actual work the organizations that benefit from their purchases are doing. On top of that, there is no publicly available information on the working conditions of the Sevenly employees, nor are there any questions about this on Sevenly’s Facebook news feed or blog, which raises questions about whether or not the company is treating their laborers properly and also whether or not the consumers even care about the production history of their purchases.
This isn’t to say that all CSR, corporate philanthropy, and cause-related marketing are tools of trickery or immoral; it’s not even to say that company and consumer culture are inherently evil. There are instances of positive CSR that have made a genuine impact on communities while upholding positive labor practices and ecological sustainability. However, consumers need to be aware of the bigger picture of what they’re supporting by shopping at these companies. If individuals continue to rely on shopping to save the world, they should be challenged to put pressure on companies to maintain proper treatment of all their employees while constantly pushing these companies to adopt more environmentally safe practices.
There also has to be a greater focus on the institutions that were established to ensure that companies are following basic labor laws and upholding their codes of conducts. In Sevenly’s case this jurisdictions falls under an organization called WRAP.
WRAP: Getting the Job Done
WRAP, or the Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production, is “an independent, objective, non-profit team of global social compliance experts dedicated to promoting safe, lawful, humane, and ethical manufacturing” (WRAPCompliance.org). The organization offers training and certificates to its members stating that the company upholds various labor laws and is acting as a socially responsible company. Sevenly is one of the many companies that has WRAP’s stamp of approval. However, what does a WRAP certification mean, and can it be trusted? Auditing agencies such as WRAP run the gamut in terms of their reliability. On the one hand, they include the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, a “program of independent safety inspections with public reports” that has effectively demonstrated progress in improving the working conditions of Bangladeshi laborers, and, on the other, they include the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, a North-American-company run initiative intended to ensure safe working conditions in Bangladesh that is riddled with controversy and has achieved little to no progression in terms of ensuring and protecting laborers (Akter 3). Therefore, an investigation into the practices and accountability measures of WRAP is required before its effectiveness and trust can be valued.
On paper, WRAP seems great. It has over 2,200 certified facilities that employ more than two million workers; it has a tiered certification program that needs to be renewed on a yearly basis; and it follows a code of twelve principles that cover and expand upon basic labor rights, including the prohibition of child labor, harassment, or forced labor, the guarantee of compensation and benefits, and the right to work in a healthy and safe environment. In order to get certified, a company has to pay a registration fee, conduct a self-assessment in which the company is required to reflect on how it can improve its standards while showing that it has been “utilizing socially-compliant practices,” agree to being monitored by a WRAP-accredited organization, and then it must agree to receive random post-certification audits throughout the company’s certification period (WRAPCompliance.org). All of this comes with a zero-tolerance policy that calls for the immediate revoking of a company’s certification status and a ban on future relations with WRAP if the company commits a “red-flag” violation of conduct, which could include the “deliberate and ongoing human rights violations,” the compromising of auditor integrity, and the false representation of a WRAP certificate (WRAPCompliance.org). While in theory this portrays WRAP to be a great way of ensuring the ethical behavior of companies, when looking at WRAP’s track record, a different story unfolds.
Since its inception in 2000, WRAP has been involved in a plethora of public scandals that have demonstrated a lack of care for the workers it is supposed to protect. WRAP-certified companies have been culpable of offenses spanning from harassment cases and illegal firings to instances of “over 100 child laborers” and unpaid wages (Delaney 11). These problems have continued, with multiple exhibitions of weak enforcement of standards occurring in 2014, and the worst part about the organization is that WRAP doesn’t seem to care or take responsibility for their certified factories companies failing to uphold basic labor standards; in every single instance WRAP claimed a separation from the incidents at hand and did nothing to penalize or make up for their errors. In this respect, WRAP falls under the same category of auditing systems that the Alliance falls under: organizations that add a level of legitimacy to a company via a stamp of approval, without effectively ensuring the just treatment of laborers and the upholding of labor laws. Rather than bolstering CSR efforts, such organizations simply act as another layer to ineffective strategies.
Auditing organizations can be successful; just look at the work done by the Accord in Bangladesh where “74% of [the] identified safety issues” found across 300 factories have been “reported or verified as fixed” (bangladeshaccord.org). However, to act as a tool to promote and ensure the ethical treatment of all workers, auditing organizations need to become more hands-on and more thoroughly investigate the day-to-day workings of factories. Can the auditors be held accountable for the treatment of laborers? If they’re giving a company their stamp of approval, it seems that they should bear some responsibility; However, it’s very easy for these auditors to avoid culpability through claiming a distance from the organizations that commit the labor violations as demonstrated by WRAP’s avoidance of any punitive action despite the numerous incidents of labor mistreatment found in its constituencies.
Sevenly, WRAP, and Consumers: Who Is Responsible?
Now that each of the components has been explored, who is accountable for the injustices in the fashion industry: the company, the consumer, or the auditor? Initial thought would lean towards the companies, as they are most directly related to the factories that commit these labor violations. However, there is the argument that subcontracting line has gotten so long that, as unlikely as it is, companies might not actually know about the working conditions in a factory. This still shouldn’t excuse the company, as, according to most CSR codes of conduct, companies have a responsibility to check on their production sites; however, what if a company has selected a factory because it has an auditing group’s stamp of approval? Shouldn’t the auditing group become responsible for a factory’s treatment of workers if the auditing organization is claiming to fulfill its sole purpose of periodically checking on factories in search of labor violations? What about the consumer? Do customers, especially those who claim to be conscientious consumers, have a responsibility to be fully aware of a business’ practices? And, as many auditing organizations are unreliable, how can a consumer be fully aware of these practices? In short, there is no right answer to any of these questions.
Instead of asking who’s responsible, there should be more of a push towards how the problems can be solved. To do this, a horizontal approach, where the entirety of the system is held accountable, seems best suited. In her book Revolutionizing Retail; Workers, Political Action, and Social Change, Kendra Coulter speaks to the success of movements against the expansion of Walmart due to the “multifaceted set of actions” that activist and community members have taken. Instead of relying on one group to change the system, the people against Walmart realized that the best way to success was by organizing together, from the retail workers to the labor activists to the concerned community members (Coulter, 128). In this system, the act of solidarity between the worker and the shopper put enough pressure on Walmart to inspire change, both within the company and with the attitude of the public towards the “importance of retail jobs and workplaces” (Coulter 138). To fix the overall work issues within the fashion industry, a similar approach must be taken; brands, employees, consumers, and auditing companies must respond to factories practicing unjust labor and then collectively work together to ensure the elimination of labor malpractices in all aspects of fashion production.
Speaking specifically to Sevenly, the company’s first step has to be gaining back the favor of its customers by catching up on its backlog. While doing that, Sevenly should ensure that their clothing is being made in fair conditions, as WRAP doesn’t appear to be doing its job. From there, Sevenly should expand upon its CSR to become more transparent and to allow more areas for the promotion of labor laws. To make this happen, Sevenly consumers need to keep the pressure on the management of Sevenly to uphold their own labor standards as well as get the company to refocus its philanthropy by vetting its partner charities more thoroughly. Finally, once Sevenly and its consumers achieve a harmonious relationship, they should work together to put pressure on WRAP to follow through with the auditing process it has set up on its website. If WRAP is effective, the organization can do good and inspire change in other parts of the fashion industry. While all of this may be a bit idyllic, an optimistic approach on reform must be taken, or else the prospect of change seems bleak.
When questioning who should be held accountable for the injustices of an industry, instead focus on the steps that need to be taken to remedy said injustices. While it may seem beneficial to seek out a scapegoat, in terms of the fashion industry every person that subscribes to fast fashion should be held accountable and, in order to fix the issues at hand, people must own up to their individual culpability and start pushing for reformation on a horizontal landscape. As consumers, people need to stop blindly trusting organizations motives and CSR plans as time and time again companies have proven to abandon these measures in pursuit of greater profits. As companies, there needs to be a greater effort in following the entirety of production and providing what is found in a transparent setting; subcontracting and audit certification programs have fallacies and until the people in these aspects of the industry hold themselves to greater moralities, direct involvement in production is necessary. Finally, auditing organizations need to uphold their promises to keep companies in line with labor standards and to make sure companies are following their CSR initiatives. The path to a world without gross violations of labor rights is not an easy one, but, if people, companies, auditors, and factories can come together to collectively solve these issues, then a future of labor justice seems obtainable.
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Coulter, Kendra (2014) Revolutionizing Retail: Workers, Political Action and Social Change. New York.
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Testimony by Kalpona Akter (2014) Prospects for Democratic Reconciliation and Improving Workers’ Rights in Bangladesh, US Senate Foreign Relations Committee