By  on November 9, 2010

Companies and executives should care as much about corporate social responsibility as they do about choosing the right fabric or designing the right style, said Kindley Walsh Lawlor, Gap Inc.’s vice president of social and environmental responsibility.

“I believe there is something everyone can do,” Lawlor said. “It doesn’t matter what size you are.”

A staunch advocate of workers’ rights, Lawlor described Gap’s many initiatives, including her company’s work in India to revive handwork, a craft that is “vulnerable” to child labor and other unethical labor practices. Recently, Gap set up community centers in villages so it could ensure employees, who are mainly women with young children, were treated fairly and paid on time.

“I walked into this temple that’s being used now as a community center where women are working, as they often do, on the floor, and chatting, and I burst into tears and had to leave,” said an emotional Lawlor, speaking about a visit last May. “It is overwhelming to see people happy and cared for, and to have a factory committed to going in there to train the workers, help them with QA [quality assurance] and checking their own work, and then for us to be there and make sure they are being paid, to look at their time sheets, is really overwhelming.”

While mining out unseemly labor practices is a no-brainer, it’s hard to police every stop on the supply chain, she said. The situation only gets tougher when a difficult economy drives demand for lower-priced goods, often resulting in “excessive overtime” for workers, as well as an increase in the likelihood of illegal and unauthorized sub-contracting, she explained.

But social responsibility, ethical sourcing and environmental responsibility programs are not only a way to manage risk, they also build trust with customers, workers and shareholders, she said.

“Doing right helps your business,” Lawlor said. “These are all good things. This is win-win.”

Gap’s efforts in social responsibility began in 1992, when it formed a set of vendor guidelines. Later in the decade, the retailer saw a need for enforcement and a code of business conduct. It launched a social responsibility Web site in 2004, in order to create transparency. Lawlor, who said she hopes to open the dialogue in the form of blogs, also advocated for companies to communicate internally and to collaborate with sourcing partners, factories and non-governmental organizations.

“There’s something that everybody can do,” she said. “There’s a piece that you can play in. There’s some puzzle piece that works in your supply chain or who you are as a company that I think you can change, again, really and truly, tomorrow.”

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