A CSR professional approaching motherhood confronts the shortcomings of corporate sustainability.
By Christine Bader
Last month’s fatal fire at a clothing factory in Pakistan that supplied Western brands and riots at a Foxconn plant in China are sobering reminders of how our consumption affects people around the world. For those of us who’ve been part of the corporate social responsibility (CSR) movement over the last two decades, working in and with companies to make those effects more positive, it is not just our actions at work but our choices at home that matter.
As a CSR professional, I’ve tried my best to walk the walk. I buy brands I know firsthand are trying to get a grip on their supply chains and human rights impacts. I bank with organizations that are not Too Big To Fail. I shop at my local green market, recycle books and clothes, and car share on the rare occasions I don’t take public transport.
The Baby Market
But as I was literally gearing up for the birth of my twins in September, surfing the web around my expanding belly to buy the necessary supplies, I was at a loss. The baby market exemplifies challenges that I’ve seen in other industries -- challenges that are magnified in a landscape of small and private companies and a vulnerable, transient customer base.
Kids’ apparel companies like Under the Nile and Positively Organic tell compelling stories on their websites about their ethical sourcing. But they aren’t part of the best-known (at least to me) certification schemes like the Fair Labor Association (FLA), which has primarily large companies sign on (and pay) to have independent monitors inspect their factories. There are smaller certification programs with nice logos and the right words in their titles, but I know nothing of their credibility and rigor. I have no reason to think that those companies or certifiers are lying, but what new parents wouldn’t want to believe they’re not buying products for kids by kids?
What We Don’t Know
Some companies don’t say anything about their practices. Medela, whose breast pumps are used by some 1.5 million women every day, is a private company, and as such doesn’t answer to shareholders -- who are often the first to push companies towards greater sustainability. Medela’s Code of Conduct says that it “supports the United Nations Global Compact,” but it hasn’t signed on to that initiative, in which companies have to report against ten principles on human rights and the environment. Skip Hop, whose diaper bags are de rigueur in my Manhattan neighborhood, highlights their philanthropy but is silent on working conditions in China where their products are made.
Even when shopping from brands with great reputations, there are surprises. Sustainability pioneer Seventh Generation dyes their diapers brown to make them appear more natural, saying they do so to distinguish them from others bleached with chlorine.
Why dye them at all?
So Much Information, So Little Time
Those of us in the CSR industry often lament that customers aren’t more informed and demanding of companies. I used to zealously promote the apps and websites that put company information into the public domain, and blithely dismiss those who say they don’t have the time, energy, or basic knowledge to use these tools.
Now, however, I’m one of the overwhelmed, having to quickly procure products I’ve never heard of (breathable bumper?! miracle swaddle?!), deprived of time and sleep, susceptible to claims that this product will help me take better care of my precious firstborns. By the time I’ve figured out what I really want and need, we’ll be moving onto the toddler market. And then I guess they’ll be off to college.
But we can’t give these companies a free pass just because their stuff is cute, or trust that they have our best interests at heart because they’re catering to our little bundles of joy. The industries that have been entangled in the worst human rights abuses have legitimate claims to the inherent worth of their missions: Oil companies provide heat, light, and mobility; Big Pharma creates life-saving drugs.
What’s a Mom To Do?
So what can I do -- and what can all of us who care about responsible business practices really do?
- Get stuff used as much as possible.
- Patronize companies run by people I know and trust are committed to responsible practices.
- Shop businesses that are certified by third parties and/or take part in multistakeholder initiatives, whether big brands that are FLA-certified or Etsy merchants that follow the OEKO-TEX 1000 standard. These programs are far from perfect, but most of them are far better than nothing.
- Research companies and products when we have time, and let the owners of those tools and websites know what’s useful and what more we need. (E.g., Dear GoodGuide: I tried to look up Dr. Brown’s bottles and found Dr. Brown’s soda.)
Of course others -- including the requisite celebrity mom -- have taken far greater actions than these, starting their own companies to make or vet eco-friendly products. But so far I’ve only seen such efforts focus on the environmental impacts of products on the end user rather than the human impacts of the products’ supply chains, which deserve far more attention than they currently get. And right now, this is as much as I can muster between feeds.
For my CSR colleagues: We need to work harder on bringing small and private companies into our conversations; on making user-friendly tools for consumers; and on waddling the waddle every day and being the change we wish to see in the world -- for ourselves and for generations to come.
Christine Bader is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University. She is (mostly) on maternity leave with her newborn twins.