Effecting change from the inside

Friday December 14, 2012

Working for the man while changing the man.

That's how Molly Ernst-Alper, a 2004 BUHS graduate who visited my Elections and Government class two weeks ago, described her work in the Human Rights Department of PVH, one of the largest global apparel companies. Though her credentials alone are impressive -- a BA in Human Rights from Barnard College, an MBA from the Marlboro Grad Center and internships with the National Labor Committee and American clothing retailer Eileen Fisher -- hearing her speak so articulately and passionately about her work was inspiring. Much of our class time is spent critically analyzing the American corporate system, so I was excited to learn that there are people like Ms. Ernst-Alper working from the inside to change the way American companies do business. She turned my attention to a wealth of new ways to make positive change in our society and the world at large.

"When I was in high school," Ernst-Alper said, "I thought corporations were evil. I thought I would go on to study human rights in college (which I did) and end up working for an NGO or the UN." Many of the students in my current high school government class, myself included, share a similar pessimism regarding large corporations, so it was refreshing to hear the rest of Ernst-Alper's story. "Discovering in my final year in college that there were people inside corporations working to make change sparked a passion in me that has yet to dwindle," she says. This passion is evident when she discusses her work.

At PVH, Ernst-Alper works with the Bass Footwear Company, communicating with vendors and factories to make the "business case" for integrating human rights into how business is run. Many American companies, she says, are moving their factories out of China and into Bangladesh because of China's increasing desire for higher tech, higher paying jobs. Bangladesh, however, is unable to hold the capacity of what American consumers demand. The result? Repeating disasters like the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist fire of 1911. Three weeks ago, 112 workers were killed in a fire at a Bangladeshi garment factory that produces clothes for Wal-Mart and other major U.S.companies. The factory had lost its fire safety certification five months prior.

Ernst- Alper's work at PVH is all about preventing these kinds of tragedies.

"Building relationships with all our stakeholders in the supply chain, including vendors, factory owners, and internal sourcing people, allows us to make change that is both meaningful and sustainable not only to the workers in the factories but to the business as well," she said.

The mission of her department is to convince factories that they don't have to cut corners in the name of profit -- that putting effort into human rights makes sense from a business standpoint as well as a humanitarian one. So how does a department such as Ernst-Alper's effectuate their mission? The department, she says, has a strong team of auditors well trained to go into factories and uncover fake records or double books. These auditors "don't simply look at the pay stubs. They also look at the shipping and receiving records to uncover discrepancies" and interview workers to find out what kind of hours they're really working. Some factories, she explains, keep two sets of payment records, one with numbers that would pass companies' inspection, and one that shows the real information.

Many companies, if shown the real records, would take their business elsewhere, so it can be very difficult to get factories to release these documents. It is the job of Ernst-Alper's department at PVH to convince factories to show them their real payment records in order to help them fix the issues without losing business. "We stress when we go into factories and talk to vendors that transparency is key. If we know what the issues are in a factory, we can better assist [them] in coming up with solutions to create a better working environment for their employees."

Rather than simply uncovering issues and demanding that the factory fix them on their own, PVH requires factory management to take the findings and create a Corrective Action Plan for each problem. The plan "asks them to explain the root cause of the problem, their solution to the problem, who will be in charge of fixing it and ensuring it remains fixed, and a timeline for when it will be fixed." This process, Ernst- Alper says, is often new to the factory owners, so PVH assessors and teams in the field assist them in developing their plans.

Convincing factories to implement these changes is one of the biggest challenges her Human Rights Department faces. Some factories, for instance, simply refuse to pay minimum wage, in which case the client Ernst-Alper works with, Bass Footwear, is forced to stop buying from them. Unfortunately, if Bass doesn't supply a large enough percentage of the contracts of the factory, their leaving has no effect, and the problems do not get resolved. For that reason, Ernst-Alper says, part of her work with Bass is getting their vendors to put products in factories where they have more leverage, granting them more influence and power to make change.

Considering my own knowledge of the American corporate system as I listened to Ernst-Alper speak, I couldn't help but ask if there were days in her job when she felt hopelessness at the enormity of the task at hand. "Ah, the tough question!" she said, and took a moment to think. "When I step back and look at the big picture, it can certainly feel hopeless. We are a large company; however, [we] are, in many ways, only the tip of the iceberg. But when I look around and see all of my colleagues in PVH and peers outside of PVH who are working to change ‘business as usual' to include the people and the planet, I feel hopeful. Feeling hopeless is, well, hopeless. It's unproductive and debilitating."

Looking at the news lately, one discovers another reason to have hope. The media is abuzz with talk of a "manufacturing renaissance" in America as more and more companies begin to move manufacturing back home. According to Charles Fishman who writes for political and cultural commentary magazine The Atlantic, General Electric is investing $1 billion in its Kentucky manufacturing plant Appliance Park. A recent New York Times article reported Apple announcing their plan to invest $100 million in producing some of their Mac computers in the United States. A Reformer article from Dec. 4 cited several other companies, such as Whirlpool, Caterpillar and elevator manufacturer Otis, that are following suit. Due to a number of reasons -- increasing wages in China, protests against the harmful environmental effects of outsourcing, the cost of transport, the low cost of energy and greater productivity in America, and the quality of American-made goods -- American companies are seeing the light.

This "insourcing" wave means we may be seeing an end to the corporate preoccupation with cheap labor. Molly Ernst-Alper certainly thinks so. When I asked what she sees as the future of her work, she replied, "I see myself continuing to work in the corporate world helping to strategically bring the focus to the triple bottom line: businesses that equally consider profit, people, and the planet when it comes to their success." In my correspondence with Ernst-Alper after her visit, she articulated well what the current trends suggest: "the relationship between being a responsible business and being a successful business are becoming increasingly intertwined ... You don't have to work in a ... human rights department at a company to change ‘business as usual,'" she said. "You can be in any department in any sized organization and make significant, positive change." She also inspired me with one last auspicious truth: "Being a responsible business is not just the right thing to do because it makes us feel good. It's the right thing to do because it's good for business."

Aurora Phillips is a senior at Brattleboro Union High School.


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