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  • 02.07.17

Bosses: Keep Up With Your Employees’ Progressive Values, Or They’ll Leave

When companies’ ethical claims don’t hold up, it’s not good for morale or employee retention.

Bosses: Keep Up With Your Employees’ Progressive Values, Or They’ll Leave

In the two weeks since President Donald Trump issued his executive order on immigration, banning travel from seven Muslim-majority countries, he’s met with opposition from a surprising sector: the tech industry. In a radical change of tune since executives like Jeff Bezos and Sheryl Sandberg filed into Trump Tower to meet with the president in December, 128 tech companies have now filed an amicus brief against the ban; the Washington Post reported that Apple CEO Tim Cook said in a company-wide email that the ban “is not a policy we support” and added that “Apple would not exist without immigration.”

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While many of these denunciations of Trump’s order appear motivated by some higher corporate ethos, there’s another factor at play here: pressure from employees. Reuters reported that employee and activist outcry was a crucial factor in Uber CEO Travis Kalanick’s decision to quit Trump’s business advisory council, and the repercussions of the ban–both personal and political–have issued a wake-up call to companies that the voices of their young, progressive workforces need to be reflected in company policies.

A new study has taken a step toward measuring the importance of business ethics to young employees (in a very different sector: the apparel and textile industry) and how it could affect retention and on-the-job satisfaction. When we think about why people switch jobs, we tend to run through the usual list of suspects: more money, interpersonal conflicts, restlessness, mid- or quarter-life crises. But a new study has found that for young workers in the textile and apparel industry, reasons for job-hopping are much more moral: if they feel a disconnect between their own values and the company’s, especially when it comes to sustainability.

“Young people in the workplace now have been raised with this idea of the importance of sustainability and community,” says Jung Ha-Brookshire, a professor of textile and apparel management at the University of Missouri, in an interview with Co.Exist. When entering the workforce, people will often seek out opportunities at companies that tout a commitment to those values, only to find that ethos falls apart along the supply chain. “When that happens, there’s a feeling of betrayal,” Ha-Brookshire says.

Ha-Brookshire, along with Rachel LoMonaco-Benzing, a doctoral student at University of Missouri’s College of Human Environmental Sciences, began interviewing employees involved with corporate supply chains at apparel and textile companies in January 2016. The research was exploratory in nature: Ha-Brookshire and LoMonaco-Benzing located and interviewed 10 people who had been in the industry anywhere from 3 to 20 years, with occupations ranging from retail to textile manufacturing to outdoor apparel production.

In the study, Ha-Brookshire and LoMonaco-Benzing wrote that “participants unanimously described a sense of distrust or a lack of confidence with T&A companies’ claims of or attempts towards sustainability.” A healthy dose of skepticism toward corporate ethical promises is common among consumers, or should be. Often, initiatives that appear to do good–like one-to-one giving models–are more about generating buzz for a company than they are about aiding real causes. “To date, much research on corporate sustainability has focused on consumers’ willingness to buy and support sustainable products, which have recognized price, quality, service, and, when it comes to fashion products, style as critical factors towards adopting sustainable consumption practices,” the authors noted in the study. In short, it’s easy for consumers to buy “sustainable” products and feel good about their choice, without actually interrogating what goes on behind the scenes.

For employees, it’s a different, and less studied, issue. “One of the workers we interviewed described sustainability in the textile industry as a ‘moral dilemma,’” Ha-Brookshire says. In an industry where profit margins are tight, companies, regardless of ethical stance, will often default to the cheapest manufacturing options, despite the fact that they may not be the most sustainable or humane. Marie, a product development engineer for a textile producer interviewed in the study, described her experience working with a company that she had been eager to support as a consumer because of their claims to sustainability:

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“They have so many things to say, they want to do this and that. You know, good for the environment, good for the United States . . . And not a single one of these things ever plays out. They’re just constantly looking for cheaper, cheaper, cheaper, which means that they’re not buying things from the United States, they’re not setting things up in the United States. They’re touting these ideals, they’re not actually doing any of these things.”

Over the course of their interview process, Ha-Brookfield and LoMonaco-Benzing heard the same sentiment repeated by each person; they plan to roll out a longer and more comprehensive survey to capture more industry-wide perspectives later this year.

While clothing companies like Everlane and Patagonia have forged bonds with consumers on the basis of sound ethical practices and sustainability–Everlane donated its Black Friday profits to factory workers, and Patagonia will start refurbishing and reselling used clothes–it’s important to remember that not everything stamped with a marker of sustainability means it truly is so.

But Ha-Brookfield and LoMonaco-Benzing’s work is not meant as just an indictment of the industry. Rather, they hope that the study will encourage the textile and apparel companies to work to align their practices with what employees expect of them, and by doing so, truly earn their consumers’ trust.

About the author

Eillie Anzilotti is an assistant editor for Fast Company's Ideas section, covering sustainability, social good, and alternative economies. Previously, she wrote for CityLab.

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