As Director of Social Consciousness and a member of the Leadership Forum for women’s clothing designer EILEEN FISHER, Amy Hall supports the company’s efforts to practice “business as a movement.” Amy collaborates internally and externally to guide the company toward ever-increasing human, environmental and economic sustainability, including co-leading the company’s Vision2020 work and shepherding the company toward its highly-anticipated B Corporation Certification. Amy chairs the advisory board of Social Accountability International and serves on the boards of Made-By, the American Sustainable Business Council, and Cornell’s “New Conversations Project.”

Christopher P. Skroupa: How did you set out to begin your labor and human rights program?

Amy Hall: In the mid-90’s, EILEEN FISHER made a strong commitment to the people in their supply chain. How to implement that commitment wasn’t immediately clear to us, so we met with our counterparts in other companies to learn the best practices. They were either developing their own systems, or adopting an international code of conduct. We adopted the SA8000 Standard as the basis for how we would maintain and develop acceptable practices within the workplace.

The SA8000 workplace standard is an internationally recognized policy that can be used in any industry, not just apparel. Over the years, we’ve offered training in SA8000 for both the managers and the workers. We have hired third party auditors to provide accountability, and to ensure that the factories were complying with guidelines put forth by SA8000. The auditors reported a conceptual snapshot of what was going on in the factories. Based on the results of those audits, we would go back in with additional training, or recommend supplementary capacity building for the factory managers. This is how we regimented the system for many years, and this is still how many other brands approach the supply chain.

Over the years we saw some improvement; certainly improvement at the physical level. The factories got cleaner and more organized, the dormitories got more humane, relationships between workers and owners generally improved. Yet, some things really never improved. What was intractable in our factories also remained stagnant across the industry. Working hours and wages were the most stubborn hurdles that remain a challenge for the apparel industry. While auditing and remediation and training, are all key components that have the capacity to build a well designed program; they are not enough.

Skroupa: So, how can you advance your factory’s labor and human rights practices?

Hall: There are some new things that brands are now attempting, and we are right there in the mix. For example, we have made use of mobile phone technology to help us better understand the current reality and the needs of supply chain workers. This technology, which relies on text messaging, is anonymous and honest. We are getting unfiltered answers from the workers, and there is no coaching involved. Typically in many situations with regular third party auditing, workers may have been coached on how to respond to questions. The mobile phone technology removes that bias and potential hazard from happening, so you get a much more genuine response.

Over the past couple of years, we have realized the consequences of our own behaviors. Our affect on the suppliers is influenced by our purchasing practices.  The way we make internal decisions and communicate them out to the factories has an impact, often preventing the factories from carrying out their work in a completely ethical way. For example, the apparel industry operates under a strict timeline in order to keep up with seasonal deliveries and deadlines. Each time a change or update is made to an order, but there is no change in the delivery date, the factory has to speed things up. Somehow they must find a way to deliver the order on time. So, workers might be asked to work overtime and may not get paid what they’re due. Or, the factory may send work out to an unauthorized subcontractor, without informing us because they don’t want to lose our business.

This lack of transparency is a problem that many brands have recognized. Now, companies must go beyond the auditing, training, remediation, and capacity building—to take a critical look at their own practices within the sales team. They need to adopt better policies through design, manufacturing, and product development. Take a holistic look at the entire team and say, how are we preventing our suppliers from carrying out their work according to the values that we expect them to uphold? And then they need to do something about it.

Skroupa: What value has been created from this, how can these practices contribute to the overall company performance?

Hall: We are just in the middle of this now, so there is no appreciable value created yet. At the moment, we are in the process of understanding the processes, redundancies, breaks in communication, etc. that link all the functions between sales order and delivery.  For example, every time one of our customers, meaning a specialty store or a department store, places a special order with us, we need to assess the ramifications of saying “Yes, we can do that.” This can lead to a spiraling out effect within the supply chain. It is imperative to look at workplace culture and the tools that are used to get the work done. Realize that we are connected to each other on a human level. Given the complexities of this work, we predict that it will take at least three years to overhaul the system.

Skroupa: Was this a voluntary initiative? Who is held responsible for ethical labor management?

Hall: Throughout the last 20 years that we have been working on labor issues in our supply chain, we have put almost all of the responsibility onto the shoulders of our suppliers. We are now recognizing this as a fallacy. It is time for us to own up to our portion of the responsibility. We are equally responsible for anything that goes awry. It’s an equal partnership.

Skroupa: After more than 20 years developing your human rights program at EILEEN FISHER, what have been the major lessons learned?

Hall: We have learned that the old methodologies are deficient. We need to share responsibility. When I began this work somebody told me, almost cryptically, that it would take about three generations to evoke real change within the culture of a business or community. I remember thinking, “wow, I’m not even going to be alive when the results of this work finally comes to fruition.” Then we got started, and I thought that we were improving rapidly. Yet reflecting back, I realize how true that statement was. You have your first culture, which may not respond with your desired outcome. The second generation will become accustomed to the new development, because it is intellectually essential. They know that they need to comply—they might not believe in it—but they will do it because they want our business. The third generation will have grown up with the knowledge that these principles are beneficial for business, and they will perform them without consciously realizing it. In a way, we have proved this to be the case.

We have learned that in order to establish a successful partnership, both we and the vendors need to be honest, open, and transparent. There will be a lot of hidden data. We ask our suppliers for a lot of information about how they run their business. But, we should also be willing to answer any questions that the supplier might have. This creates a true partnership with mutual trust. By doing this work we strengthen both our businesses. We now have committed workers that are respected and valued with the skills that they bring, and they have a plenitude of options going forward in their job.

This thought process keeps me motivated. The way the apparel industry operates has remained constant for over a century. I’d like to imagine the way we should actually look, today in the 21st Century. Not only in the physical appearance of the factories, but also in the emotional connection to our work. I feel like we are still stuck in a century-old way of conducting business, we need to create the foundation for the apparel industry of the future. In order to get there, we need to be willing to ask ourselves why we do things the way we do them—and be prepared to crack the system open, to reveal a new truth.

Christopher P. Skroupa is the founder and CEO of Skytop Strategies, a global organizer of conferences.