The great distance between America and Asia helps obscure a fundamental truth: that we enjoy cheap manufactured goods while others, including children, toil under sweatshop conditions at low wages. This was thrown into sharp relief when a factory in Bangladesh collapsed, killing more than 400 workers. Products manufactured in the factory include clothing that is likely in your closet, sold by mainstream brands like JC Penney and Gap.
We are all complicit in these deaths. We create the demand that makes the commerce possible. U.S.-based companies look the other way when they see the conditions that workers suffer under. And the manufacturers patrol their domains like gangsters, because they often are.
It doesn’t have to be that way. If we boycott the sweatshops, they will change their ways or go out of business. And we can start by becoming more mindful consumers, buying fewer but higher quality items and knowing more about their provenance.
Just 315 kilometers northwest of Savar, there’s a different kind of manufacture going on. Saidpur Enterprises is a cooperative of 21 women who sew market bags, which sell for between $58 and $78 from apolisglobal.com. This is a sort of “right-sized” capitalism, with the workers creating a high-quality product, Apolis marketing it worldwide, and consumers paying a fair price.
Apolis practices what Richard Edelman calls “profit with purpose.” Apolis “is a living and breathing social enterprise that equips and empowers people through opportunity. Apolis is a pioneer in the socially responsible apparel industry and creates opportunity by forming unique manufacturing partnerships around the globe.” The company is not a non-profit. Instead, it is a “B Corporation,” an innovative structure that balances good business with social purpose. Success, for a B Corporation, is much more than just making money. Also part of the rubric: governance, workers, community and environment. B Corporations also practice transparency, sharing their progress for all the world to see (view Apolis’ scorecard here).
Apolis is one company riding a crest of public support for ethical business practices. In 2012, Edelman updated the “Good Purpose” study, a six-year longitudinal study that has documented this trend. The study found:
- a 47 percent increase over 2010 in consumers who bought a cause-related brand monthly;
- a 39 percent increase in willingness to recommend cause-related brands;
- a majority feel that CEOs should be leaders in creating socially-responsible practices.
Adding purpose to a company’s mission can turn out to be good business. It certainly can help improve the quality of life for the workers who make the products that we buy.
And it’s certainly something to think about in the attention economy, in which advertising no longer works and companies have resorted to shouting to be heard. Instead: invest in performance, deputize your stakeholders, and let them tell your story. People will listen to that.