U.S. beware: Fair labor activism centered in Europe may be headed here

With its pristine images and nature themes, the outdoor industry in Europe has become a prime target for activist groups using negative campaigns to promote fair labor practices. Is the U.S. the next target? SNEWS® explores.
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Long before most industries ever thought about how ecologically sound or sustainable their practices and products were, the outdoor industry as a whole has been talking about steps to protect the environment. And has in fact taken them.

But that hasn’t stopped an Amsterdam-based, European-centric activist group, bent on globalizing a viral campaign to improve factory working conditions, from deciding the outdoor industry is a target that will gain it headlines.

Insiders have told SNEWS® that it’s the very images of healthy people hiking through fields or casting a gaze across pristine mountain tops -- wearing sticky rubber-soled boots, waterproof jackets and antimicrobial shirts -- that has caused activists to cast an eye in the industry’s direction.

Affiliates of the Clean Clothes Campaign (www.cleanclothes.org) have released reports and studies for a few years, pointing fingers of blame at mainstream companies for “unclean” factory conditions. However, it wasn’t until the venerable, highly read German magazine Spiegel, picked up the information for an online story in 2010, that the rumble became an uproar. As translated by SNEWS, the spectacular headline read:

“Outdoor manufacturers flunk social responsibility.”

The story -- released conveniently just in time for this year’s OutDoor show in Friedrichshafen, Germany, where it created a big buzz, lots of anxiety and its share of impromptu aisle huddles -- read (as translated by SNEWS):

“The outdoor industry stands for freedom and a connection to nature, but manufacturers don’t seem to take that so seriously when it comes to their responsibility. Now, they’ve come under massive criticism – sure, their jackets may cost 600 euro, but their factory workers are being cheated.”

Said Mark Held, executive director of the European Outdoor Group, a trade association for brands doing business in Europe, “They basically threw mud at the entire industry.”

Coming soon to North America?

Although until now the campaign’s tactics have been focused on Europe, it’s time for North American companies to think hard about what they will do when it crosses the Atlantic. Despite skeptics who doubt the campaign’s networks will spread to this continent, it’s a good idea to be prepared, others say.

“Every industry and individual company that relies on foreign sourcing must accept the risk that such campaigns may arise at any time, locally, regionally or globally,” Sandra Cho, corporate social responsibility manager for Columbia Sportswear, told SNEWS. 

If the Clean Clothes Campaign is based in The Netherlands, how could the campaign come to North America? Because the CCC doesn’t actually organize activities; rather it has small affiliate activist organizations in each country that pick up its information and then run with it. For example, in Germany it was the “Christliche Initiative Romero” (CIR, www.ci-romero.de) that circulated results of the CCC-backed studies.

“Outdoor manufacturers strongly promote their sustainability practices, fairness and social engagement,” a representative of the CIR told Spiegel for the article (translation by SNEWS). “However, all of its jackets, shoes and backpacks are no different than those of mass discounters – globally, they are all made for starvation wages.”

According to Held, the affiliates each year do a survey, asking companies a list of questions about their factories and wages. Then, he said, the groups end up promoting the areas where the glass is half-empty instead of half-full, simply ignoring the things a company said it is doing positively.

“You are picked apart for the things you are NOT doing rather than the things you ARE doing,” he said.

The CCC has affiliates in 15 European Union countries. Once a similar North American or U.S.-based group decides to take part in the campaign, all bets are off about what will happen outside of Europe, insiders said.

Frank Hugelmeyer, president of the Outdoor Industry Association, said the association and its members have been watching the campaign overseas, but said he believes they are ahead of it with its work on the Eco Index (www.ecoindexbeta.org) and in other sustainability areas.

“We are now building the tools to help companies get ahead of this ball,” he said.

Still, he said he agreed with Cho that companies must not ignore the possibility of attack by working on their corporate responsibility plans.

Being “fair”

Held stressed that companies must stop discussing which independent group they will work with to make sure their labor conditions and sustainability practices are in order, but simply must choose one and start the process.

Several European-based outdoor manufacturers have in fact just recently joined the Fair Wear Foundation (www.fairwear.org), which is equivalent to the U.S.’s Fair Labor Organization (www.fairlabor.org). Once companies join Fair Wear, they must work through a long process to assure they are complying with a standard code of fair labor practices, including auditing and perhaps even reorganizing a management structure. It is not inexpensive, Held said, but it is an independent system.

Germany’s Vaude officially joined Fair Wear in November 2010. In July, Vaude executive Jan Lorch told SNEWS the company had just decided to go with Fair Wear.

“Transparency is for us very important,” Lorch said. “We can push these values in Europe.”

Held said the industry should not be the one to become a poster child for unfair practices, but there are many popular and well-known brands that make it an easy target.

“We have very good factories in our industry,” Held said. “It’s really making a mountain out of a molehill.”

The European Outdoor Group and the U.S.-based Outdoor Industry Association are two groups that brands should turn to for help and recommendations, said Held, Hugelmeyer and Cho. Find OIA’s corporate responsibility information by clicking here, or go to EOG’s site by clicking here.

“The outdoor industry has been active developing tools and guidance for its membership,” Cho said, “and it’s critical that the industry continue to work together, especially since many of the companies in the outdoor industry are small and need the leverage of an industry association to make an impact.”

The EOG is in the process of putting together advice from lawyers and public relations professionals on how to deal with such groups, Held told SNEWS. It will cover how to interact with such a group, as well as how to manage a situation once a company has been criticized, he said. Responding independently to surveys from such activist groups may be setting up a company to become a target.

“You can get yourself in a lot of trouble in reacting,” he added.

Joining industry groups to learn from others who have well-developed corporate responsibility plans, such as adidas or Columbia, is another route recommended by many.

Meanwhile, for 2011, the goal is to be ready with an offensive, Held explained.

“We’d far rather have a dialogue,” he said – and that applies to North American companies.

“My message is, ‘Watch out U.S. You’re getting caught up by default because you are global brands,” Held said, “and this sharp edge could spread.’”

--Therese Iknoian

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