By  on May 16, 2006

NEW YORK — Major apparel brands and retailers are looking to go beyond their codes of conduct and cursory on-site factory audits to bring about a new era in corporate social responsibility.

The goal of such brands as the Gap, Levi Strauss and Nike lies in dispensing with what has sometimes resembled a dysfunctional parent-child relationship between brand owners and the factories that produce their goods. Now, these firms are looking to recast themselves as customers that do more than demand compliance, but provide the necessary resources and training.

"No one likes to be the police — no one likes that relationship," said Michael Kobori, vice president of code of conduct for Levi Strauss. "The industry is spending 80 percent [of its resources] on monitoring and only 20 percent on building the factories' ability to remediate these issues. We need to flip this around."

For Kobori and others involved in investigating global labor standards, this change has been slow to occur, largely because corporate social responsibility is still in its infancy.

Alice Tepper Marlin, president of Social Accountability International, a nonprofit organization focusing on workers' rights, has been a firsthand witness to what she says has been the corporate world's rapid change in thinking about social responsibility.

"If you went back 15 years and suggested to a company that their consumers and the public would hold them responsible for the employment practices and environmental impact of companies they purchased their goods from, you would have been viewed as a voice from Mars," said Tepper, who has been working in the field since 1969.

While companies readily acknowledged their responsibility for areas such as worker's rights and safe factory conditions, Tepper conceded that implementing change has been a slow process, "and it's got a long way to go." The first stage of development for apparel companies, according to Tepper, was kicked off in 1991 when Levi's became the first major brand to issue a code of conduct for its global suppliers. A proliferation of codes from other brands ensued.

From there, the emphasis shifted to learning how to effectively audit, inspect or monitor factories. Tepper asserted that most companies should now be entering a third stage, focusing on providing factories with the means to fix the root cause of a problem.

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