Purchasing Power

05.08.134:45 AM ET

How Can Consumers Tell If a Company Is Socially Responsible Abroad?

After a garment-factory collapse killed hundreds of workers in Bangladesh, the director of social consciousness for Eileen Fisher shares tips on how to vet products made overseas.

I’m a fairly typical suburban consumer: wife, mother of two school-age girls, living in a diverse community north of New York City. My free time is spent helping with homework, detangling hair, sorting laundry, weeding the garden, and cooking dinner.  And I confess to an obsession with Downton Abbey and Mad Men.

But that’s not all. By day, I’m the director of social consciousness for women’s clothing brand Eileen Fisher. It is a role I inhabit with utter humility and gratitude. My work is not a job; it is a precious opportunity to make a lasting difference in this fleeting life.

At Eileen Fisher, social consciousness suggests our shared responsibility toward people and planet. We are all stewards of the earth and her inhabitants. (“We” being our employees, customers, neighbors, business partners, and suppliers.) My role, therefore, is one of facilitator, influencer, collaborator, and sometimes, nag. I must navigate the murky waters between fashion and sustainability, profits and values, and some would say between evil and good.

The recent building collapse in Bangladesh reminds me and my CSR (corporate social responsibility) peers of the urgency of our work. Although Eileen Fisher does not manufacture any of our products in Bangladesh, we mourn the loss of life and the permanent physical and emotional scarring that so many have suffered unnecessarily.

When tragedies like this happen, we are tempted to point fingers at those we think are responsible parties. To the government that should enforce its own laws. To the brands who should invest more deeply in their supplier factories. To the consumers who buy their wares. We are all guilty on some level. We are all connected. We are all reminded that we must deepen our commitment to ending such inequities going forward.

As a suburban consumer, I do what I can to support local economies and values-based brands. I buy organic produce in season, I shop at the farmers’ market, I buy online from cool, eco-responsible brands. As a mom, I have very little time to search for hip, appealing clothing for my growing girls. When shopping for my daughters, I cringe at what I suspect about the dyes and fibers in these clothes. Not to mention the wages and working conditions of the workers who made them. I admit that I do buy the clothes and get back to my life as quickly as possible—guilty as charged.

What can we do? As brands, we have a responsibility first to the people who make our products, without whom we would have no business. At Eileen Fisher, we take pride in choosing suppliers who reflect our values—not simply based on lowest price and quickest turn-around. Do they exhibit empathy toward their workforce? Are the workers happy? Free to come and go at will? Coercion or threats will not move us toward a place of shared values. Partnership and trust will.

Once we identify those suppliers who are open to the language of social responsibility, we must help them acquire the tools and support they need to run a safe, ethical business that places the workers at the center. Worker training, management training, infrastructure investment, and capacity building. It’s all part of the cost of doing business responsibly.

As consumers, we may not be able to change our shopping habits overnight, but raising our level of awareness about what we are buying is a start. Looking for the cheap price does not support living wages and safe workplaces. Buying less, while buying responsibly, does. Not sure where to shop? Look for certified B corporations and certified Fair Trade products. Follow sites like GreenAmerica.org and GoodGuide.com for impartial guidance about which brands to support and which to avoid. Speak to store associates and read brand websites. Do they list their suppliers? Do they have a human-rights policy that includes training and capacity building? If all else fails, listen to your gut. It never lies.

Amy Hall is the director of social consciousness at Eileen Fisher.