Bath Business and Society

Research, analysis and comment on the role of business in society from Bath's School of Management

Tagged: corporate responsibility

Tackling child labour in the fashion industry - why the best firms have the most to lose

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📥  Business and society, Consumers, Human rights, Modern slavery, Policy, Supply chains

 

New research suggests that firms with a good reputation for ethical sourcing in the fashion industry are judged more harshly than their peers when child labour is discovered in their supply chainMeggan Caddey, a final year PhD student, and Johanne Grosvold and Stephen Pavelin, all from the Centre for Business, Organisations and Society at the University of Bath, explain their findings.

Child labour remains a major societal challenge. The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that 168 million children are involved in child labour today, which the United Nations (UN) defines as “work for which the child is either too young – work done below the required minimum age – or work which, because of its detrimental nature or conditions, is altogether considered unacceptable for children and is prohibited”. Many of these children work in the garment and fashion apparel industry.

The drive for child labour

According to the organisation Stop Child Labour, fast fashion has resulted in high demand for children who are willing to work for very low pay and in dangerous conditions. Some have suggested that their employment is tantamount to modern day slavery. Some of our best known high street brands including Adidas, H&M and Nike have relied on manufacturers who have subsequently been exposed as using children to work in unsafe conditions.

Increasingly, global firms are recognising that failure to address the challenge of child labour can seriously impact on their corporate reputation. However fashion supply chains are complex, relying on numerous suppliers, sub suppliers and manufacturers. According to H&M’s Head of Sustainability Helena Helmersson, these supply chain networks are so complex that “it is impossible to be in full control”.

Corporate responsibility and corporate reputation

Prior research indicates that, by going above and beyond the basic requirements for fulfilling their corporate social responsibilities, proactive firms can engender goodwill that acts as an insurance against potential damage to their reputation.  The theory goes that if news of wrongdoing emerges from the supply chain of such a proactive firm, its reputation will suffer less because people will give it the benefit of the doubt - 'surely, this good firm must not be to blame'. Other firms that have no such record of exemplary behaviour would be more readily blamed and, as a result, their reputations would suffer more. According to this theory, H&M would suffer less of a reputational impact if child labour was uncovered in its supply chain, as it is now working strategically to become the most ethical fashion chain on the high street. We set out to test this theory in relation to supply chains in the apparel industry.

Research findings

Our study used an experimental vignette method. This involved presenting study participants with carefully constructed, lifelike scenarios, to evaluate their attitudes, opinions and views of a firm’s actions regarding child labour in the fashion supply chain. Over 800 participants took part in our study, and our initial results are surprising. We found that a firm that had taken steps to address child labour and unsafe working conditions in its supply chain enjoyed a better reputation than a firm that had not. However, when something went wrong, people judged these firms more harshly than they did the firms that had previously behaved less responsibly. So, while firms that are more socially responsible tend to benefit from an improved reputation, such goodwill is accompanied by greater reputational risks - specifically, such a firm experiences greater harm to its reputation if unsafe labour practices are subsequently discovered in its supply chain.

Our findings imply that it is in firms’ interests to address unsafe practices in their supply chains, as doing so results in a better corporate reputation. However, our results also suggest that steps taken to stamp out child labour and poor working conditions tend to strengthen the imperative for a firm to maintain a consistent commitment to responsible sourcing. If they don’t, they risk particularly stringent reputational punishment. In effect, this can create something of a virtuous cycle, which gives momentum to firm's steps towards stamping out child labour and unsafe working conditions. Careful reputation management implies that firms setting high standards must continue to live up to them.

The business case for doing good

There is an increased policy emphasis from both governments and NGOs to reduce the use of child labour and unsafe working conditions in the supply chain. There is also evidence that firms are increasingly taking the problem of child labour seriously, with some estimates suggesting that reliance on child labour was reduced by 30% from 2002-2012. As our research shows, tackling this issue can bring benefits for both children and firms.

We provide distinctive new evidence that guides us towards a more detailed understanding of the business case for being good and doing good. By illustrating the reputational benefits of sustainable supply chain practices, our research findings can help motivate firms not already on board, and inspire those who have already taken action to sustain and expand their efforts. This may in turn encourage them to sign up to independent initiatives such as  GoodWeave, which awards companies the right to carry the GoodWeave label if they can show that no child labour or bonded labour was used in the production of their goods. With 11% of the world’s children still sacrificing school in order to work, this is no time for business to be complacent.

Image by Zoriah

 

 

Going the extra mile at work - good for your career, bad for your mental health

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📥  Business and society, Employers

 

"Going the extra mile" at work - helping colleagues, going beyond the confines of a narrow job description, taking on extra responsibilities - can help people feel more engaged with their work, improve job satisfaction and increase promotion prospects. But as Bruce Rayton explains, this doesn't come without a cost.  

Mental health is becoming a hot topic. Boosted by a high profile awareness campaign fronted by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry,  recent months have seen public figures from the worlds of music and sport as well as Prince Harry himself speak out about the challenges they’ve faced.

Businesses too have joined the conversation, and it makes sense for them to do so. After all, paid work is the primary activity for many people during their waking hours, and the costs associated with employees’ mental health problems are significant.

The UK’s National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence estimated the cost of impaired work efficiency associated with mental health problems at £15.1 billion a year. This figure is almost twice the estimated annual cost of absenteeism (£8.4 billion). These costs are associated with loss in productivity because of sickness absence, early retirement, low engagement, and increased staff turnover, recruitment and training.

 The mental health risks of being a good citizen at work

Our recent research helps us understand an important piece of this problem.  Our findings show that employees who work beyond the narrow boundaries of their job roles are at increased risk of mental health problems. We found that going the extra mile at work can lead to higher levels of emotional exhaustion and work-family conflict. We also found that these effects were most pronounced for employees who already performed well in the core elements of their jobs.

We defined ‘going the extra mile’ using well-known academic measures of organisational citizenship behaviour (OCB), with a particular focus on the dimensions of ‘altruism’ (helping colleagues) and ‘conscientiousness’ (going beyond the minimum). We were especially interested in the effects of conscientiousness and altruism because these time-consuming activities have the potential to exhaust employees emotionally and leave less time for family life.

OCB is widely regarded as being beneficial for both employers and employees. We know from earlier work that OCB improves group and organisational performance and influences managers’ decisions on an individual’s performance ratings, promotion and pay. The worker puts in extra time, or takes on extra responsibility, and as a result feels more engaged with their work and positive about their career prospects. The employer gets committed staff, with improved productivity or results. However, our work suggests that there is also a cost to be paid for these benefits. Somewhat surprisingly, these costs are disproportionately paid by those who are doing “the day job” well.

What can employers do?

Managers are prone to delegate more tasks and responsibilities to conscientious employees who are likely to try to maintain consistently high levels of output. We can see the sense in using today’s strengths to solve today’s problems. However, we think that companies should think twice before asking the same ‘good soldiers’ to take on yet more additional tasks and consider how the burden might be shared.  Even the highest performers will eventually run out of emotional energy and the consequences for their mental health will have further consequences for their employers.

We believe that much greater consideration needs to be given to the kinds of behaviours that HR practices are encouraging and how organisations might cope with the consequences. Reviews of practices in three key areas are necessary:

·         A narrow focus of reward and performance management systems on short term goals might encourage the kind of ‘sprinting’ which increases the longer term costs of OCB.

·         Education and training practices for both line managers and employees could aid recognition of situations where employees risk becoming emotionally exhausted.

·         Health and safety practices, especially those associated with mental health and emotional well-being, can help those who suffer from the problems we identified.

An opportunity to “go the extra mile” is something that many employees want employers to provide. The resulting benefits including learning opportunities, skill development and knowledge transfer, can all have a substantial impact on the bottom line for firms and on the career development of individual employees. That said, managers need to keep an eye on the bigger picture if the performance gains associated with providing these opportunities are to be sustained. The human capital developed through OCB can only create value for organisations if the employees are healthy enough to use it to good effect.

Employers should pay attention to more than the quarterly bottom line. They should make themselves aware of both the current state of and potential threats to the mental health of their employees, particularly their high performers. If nothing else, this awareness holds the prospect of helping firms avoid turning today’s solutions into the sources of tomorrow’s problems.

Image: Working late by Victoria Pickering

Trump’s first 100 days have triggered political activism among corporate America

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📥  Business and society, Environment, Human rights, Policy

 

President Trump has introduced a flurry of legislation in his first 100 days. Companies and their CEOs are responding by taking stands on political issues in ways rarely seen before. Andrew Crane asks whether this could end up transforming the way we think about corporate responsibility.

President Trump’s first 100 days have not been good for the planet. While the question of whether he will fulfil his campaign promise of rolling back the US’s commitment on the Paris climate deal is still to be settled, he has stuffed his cabinet with climate change sceptics. Most notably, the appointment of Scott Pruitt to head up the US Environmental Protection Agency met with a storm of criticism. This was hardly surprising given his ties with the energy industry, his denial of man-made climate change, and a long history of fighting the very agency he has been appointed to lead.

Trump and his cabinet have not been slow in rolling back environmental regulation introduced during the Obama presidency. As part of an effort to revive the coal industry, an executive order last month started unravelling Obama’s clean power plan (CPP). As the New York Times reported, the order effectively ceded the US’s leadership in addressing climate change and turned “denials of climate change into national policy”.

While such developments were hardly unexpected, what has been interesting has been the corporate response. Last November, nearly 400 US companies including Nike, Levis Strauss and Starbucks demanded that he leave in place low-emissions policies. In the wake of the CPP announcements in March many companies again took a public stand against the policy reversal. For example, Mars Inc. expressed disappointment at the policy change while tech companies including Apple, Amazon and Microsoft signed a joint statement supporting the CPP.

It is rare to hear companies, and US companies in particular, arguing to keep regulation. They are also usually unwilling to take explicit political stands in the public eye, preferring to use lobbying and more covert forms of political influence to sway governments to act in their interests. But the corporate response to the climate rollback seems to be part of a broader change of heart among senior executives to take public positions against what they see as undesirable policy shifts.

This change was first noticeable following Trump’s immigration ban back in January that saw wholesale restrictions on refugees and others from predominantly Muslim countries from entering the US. As Business Insider reports, “Before the day was over, Facebook's CEO had published a post denouncing the order. By the end of the weekend, Starbucks' CEO had outlined plans to hire 10,000 refugees. And, within a week, Uber's CEO had quit Trump's economic team as thousands deleted their accounts with the ride-hailing app.”

The response by corporate America to the immigration ban was significant and widespread. Rather than the usual caution about taking a political stand on a hot button issue, companies as diverse as Coca Cola, Google, and Ford came out against the policy. The tech industry’s response gained a lot of attention, not only because high profile companies and their leaders such as Sergey Brin at Google actively spoke out against the executive order, but also because regular tech industry employees staged walkouts and protests rarely seen before in the industry. For many in tech, the Atlantic reported, this was the first time they had taken part in political activism in their lives.

 

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So what does all this mean? There are a number of ways of looking at this, but the big change for me is that US companies are starting to acknowledge a meaningful role for themselves as explicit political actors. In the past, few company executives would ever admit that their actions were in any way political. “We don’t do politics” was the mantra, despite the billions of dollars spent on lobbying and trying to buy influence in Washington. However, as companies have more openly started addressing issues traditionally thought of as government responsibilities – protecting human rights, providing public goods, enforcing social and environmental standards, and the like – the cloak has gradually slipped.

Scholars of corporate responsibility such as myself have been analysing these developments over the past couple of decades, labelling these new corporate behaviours variously as “corporate citizenship”, “political CSR”, or “private governance”. So the response by corporate America to Trump’s first 100 days is not so much a sudden change in their core corporate responsibility behaviours, more a new found willingness to start acknowledging what has been increasingly apparent all along: corporations do indeed play an explicitly political role.

Acknowledging something is the first step to dealing with it. And the role of business in politics is something that we certainly do need to address as a matter of urgency. Most business leaders may not be completely comfortable yet with admitting their political role, but many do want to start thinking more seriously about their impact on the world, as Mark Zuckerberg’s recent 6,000 word manifesto exemplifies. Further radical announcements from the Trump administration are likely to incite yet more corporate political activism. So while we may not be able to thank President Trump for his impact on the planet, he may yet be responsible for a breakthrough moment in companies’ understandings of their changing role in society.

Header image by Ted Eytan