The bumpy path to the high road
by Claire Whitcomb

What does it mean to be a socially and environmentally responsible company—and still sell clothes? Over the past fifteen years, Amy Hall, Director of Social Consciousness, has looked at that question through the eyes of farmers and factory workers, NGOs and CFOs. She’s taken our Social Consciousness department from a glimmer of an idea to a four-woman team with an increasingly ambitious agenda. They’re offsetting our domestic energy usage, exploring chlorine-free wool and looking for new ways to fight human trafficking and slavery. But it’s an imperfect world out there and Amy knows that all too well.

Amy Hall sits at a sunny desk overlooking the Hudson River, but she spends a lot of her time in what she calls “the gray zone.” It’s that place between yes and no, between good and bad. A place that shouldn’t have Uzbek cotton, but might possibly.

Recently EILEEN FISHER received a letter from a nonprofit asking if we use cotton from Uzbekistan, where child and forced labor is common and where the Aral Sea is being drained to irrigate cotton fields.

“We think the answer is no,” says Amy. “We have a policy against using Uzbek cotton. But can we be absolutely certain that a bale hasn’t been mixed in by some middleman in our supply chain? Verification of fiber sourcing is extremely tricky.”

Fifteen years ago when she started her job, things were simpler. Much simpler. “We thought, ‘Oh, great, we’re using natural fibers,’ ” says Amy. “We didn’t think about all the things we think about today—pesticides, factory waste or the carbon footprint of the transportation.”

The hot button issue was human rights.

The nightly news was full of stories about sweatshops overseas and no brand wanted to find itself in the next exposé. It was a different era. Strong human rights standards were just being developed, today’s army of nonprofit auditors hadn’t sprung up. “We were figuring things out as we went,” says Amy.

In 1997 she joined a working committee at Social Accountability International, the nonprofit dedicated to human rights, and helped draft SA8000, the strict and holistic standard we ask our sixteen global manufacturing partners to follow. In seven dense pages, it lays out the requirements for a humane workplace, issuing a clarion call for fair pay, fair working hours, safe conditions, no child or forced labor and no human trafficking.

For many years SA8000 was the only human rights standard to mention trafficking, a word that today is used synonymously with slavery.

“In 2005 when we started raising awareness about human trafficking through grants and in-store fundraising, people thought we were talking about a moving vehicle violation,” says Amy. “Three years ago, they thought, ‘oh gosh, bad things happen overseas.’ Now they’re starting to realize that human trafficking and slavery can happen right next door—at a nail salon or a cleaning firm in their own towns.”

An estimated 27 million people are enslaved globally, more than at any time in human history. They work in fields, homes, mines, restaurants—and garment factories.

Of all the issues in Amy’s world, this is the grayest. And most frequently misunderstood.

How does someone become a slave in a post-ball-and-chain world? The trafficking most likely to occur in the EILEEN FISHER supply chain involves factory workers, frequently Chinese migrants, brought by employment brokers into foreign countries. “I just got back from Italy where I visited two factories we use in Prato,” says Amy. “Prato is a known haven for human trafficking.”

Ancient and walled, Prato has the highest concentration of Chinese immigrants in Europe. Some arrive legally, welcomed by factories and mills looking for cheap labor to produce “Made in Italy” garments. Others agree to pay a broker or “snakehead” an exorbitant fee to be smuggled in on a tourist visa—$10,000 according to an account in Businessweek. Once in Prato, workers find that they are trapped in foul sweatshops earning an average of $650 a month, struggling to pay their broker fees. “This kind of debt bondage can happen any place where there is cheap pay for hard work,” says Amy. “Even the United States.” It is most prevalent at factories that churn out fast fashion; it is rare in factories that pride themselves on quality and artisanship. But trafficking can take place beneath even the best brand’s radar. Factories subcontract to sweatshops. Auditors miss vital cues.

Because human trafficking happens in the shadows, it’s easy for brands to think that the problem doesn’t apply to them. “Nonprofits such as Not for Sale tell us one of the big obstacles they face is brand awareness,” says Amy. “Even at a socially responsible company like EILEEN FISHER, we had a learning curve.”

A learning curve that came with a deadline. In 2010 California passed a transparency act requiring companies of a certain size to disclose their efforts to stop human trafficking and slavery. To comply, a company simply had to make a statement. If they were doing nothing at all, they had to say that—by January 1, 2012.

Amy’s first thought was, “Oh, this will be easy. We do so much auditing and human rights work.” Then she started thinking about what an authentic and thoughtful response would mean.

By following SA8000, our factories should be free of human trafficking. How could we make sure? Luna Lee, the Human Rights Specialist on Amy’s team, began working with nonprofit partners to develop a new targeted set of audit questions for factories, questions that zero in on human trafficking red flags—broker fees, withheld passports and IDs, threats that if a worker makes trouble, friends and family back home will suffer.

Cellphone surveys of workers are a new tool for uncovering this sensitive information. In India, EILEEN FISHER recently partnered with Good World Solutions to survey workers at a factory known for being a fair and progressive workplace. “We were surprised to find that, unbeknownst to the owners, some factory workers paid fees in order to get their jobs,” says Luna. “We’re not sure this means trafficking was involved. It may be a case of bribery, since lots of people want to work at this factory. Neither scenario is good. We are investigating further through more cellphone surveys and collaboration with other brands at the same factory.”

This kind of deep investigation happens at the factories that we hire directly—and audit directly: the factories that sew our clothes and knit our sweaters. What about the mills that supply them with fabrics and yarns? Who makes the zippers and buttons? And who works in the cotton and flax fields, the sheep and alpaca ranches where our clothes begin? If the fiber has certain organic certifications, labor conditions may be verified. Otherwise, we, like most brands, really don’t know.

Understanding our sprawling global supply chain requires facts. And staff.

“As a company, we decided to invest in mapping our entire supply chain,” says Amy, who is hiring additional team members to take on this work. “It’s a difficult task and not many brands have been able to accomplish it. But if EILEEN FISHER is going to be honest about its social and environmental footprint, we have to do our homework.”

That homework involves a number of new metrics, including a rating system for fibers so that their impact can be assessed at a glance. Linen vs. cotton, nylon vs. polyester, fair trade vs. conventional manufacturing. “We’re trying to understand all the social and environmental implications before we fall in love with a fabric or a yarn,” says Amy. “We want to be able to start at a good place rather than coming in later and cleaning up the process.”

Despite this new, systematic emphasis on transparency and verification, she says, “There’s still an intangible piece we need to pay attention to. How comfortable are we partnering with a business? Do they share our values and our commitment to change? Sometimes you just have to do a gut check and listen to your intuition.”

Welcome to Amy’s world.