Speaking from the backyard of his home in El Salvador, Ramiro Lemus admits the past has not been easy for him, but you sense he’s turned a corner as he brightens and demonstrates the filtration system of his new fish farming tank. “I couldn’t have done this on my own, this kind of business requires investment,” he says, “but everything comes at the right time, now I have a wife, a house and I have projects!”
Lemus’ Tilapia farming opportunity, which will likely double his income to $600 a month, was built under Project 600, a program developed by League Central America (LCA), a division of League Collegiate Outfitters, as a way to double employee salaries, and is just one of a number of social and economic initiatives they have designed to impact the lives of workers in El Salvador. But perhaps the most remarkable part of the story is that League is neither a human rights charity nor an NGO, it’s a business that manufactures collegiate apparel.
Earlier this year, Barnes & Noble College’s Director of General Merchandise, Patrick Gross, visited the League facility in El Salvador, and what he saw there left an impression. “Their approach is not simply about handing their workers cash as a way of improving their lives; it’s about providing the kind of sustainable infrastructure that can help raise their standard of living in a variety of different ways.”
Some of those approaches would be familiar to more enlightened employers in the First World, such as providing daycare facilities, but some speak directly to the unique challenges faced by the Salvadorian workers. As a society, El Salvador has experienced a culture of gang violence, creating a vicious cycle of prison and unemployment, but League actively reaches out to rehabilitate former gang members to become productive workers at the company’s facility. Similarly, the physically handicapped are often considered a burden to their families and are ostracized in the Central American country, yet it’s League’s goal to target 20 percent of their workers from the ranks of the nation’s handicapped population. “There’s very much a collaborative, family feel to the way the LCA factory is managed,” explains Lisa Loughan, Barnes & Noble College Merchandise Manager, who accompanied Gross on the visit. “All of the supervisors give their time, and very often money, to help workers, so they’re not contracting someone to build a tilapia farm, rather, they all go after work and help build it themselves,” she says.
That kind of ethic is passed down from the company’s owners, Drew Wolf and Larry Klebanoff, who regularly invest from their own pockets, most recently to build accessible housing for handicapped workers close to the factory, to ease what can often be a difficult commute. League is not alone in those kinds of humanitarian efforts. “It’s not just being part of the community,” explains Chris Fox, Vice President Corporate Responsibility for Hanes Brands Inc., “but more importantly, giving back to it.”
Renovating the San Juan Opico Health Unit in El Salvador, Hanes contributed more than $55,000 to improve the clinic’s structure, install a new roof and upgrade wiring and plumbing, while an additional $28,000 was allocated to purchase new beds and much-needed medical equipment. In addition to the financial support, Hanes also donated sweat equity to the project with employees from around the world chosen to travel to El Salvador to volunteer for cleaning, painting and landscaping projects around the clinic.
One intended product of the companies outreach in El Salvador is that improving the lives of their workers will very often result in them leaving the garment manufacturing industry for better opportunities. “There’s a very selfless irony to it,” Loughan points out. “LCA will encourage workers to learn English so they can work in higher paying jobs in call centers, maintaining that it will also provide more opportunities to hire new workers and impact more lives,” she says.
In addition to securing better conditions for their workers, Hanes Brands and League are also concerned with the environmental impact of the manufacture of their products. In the process of dying garments for example, toxic ink residues are often washed into the water table. It’s a practice League has reversed by pumping the waste water into massive reservoir systems where the ink discharge can be separated out and baked into the same bricks that go into the construction of workers’ projects such as the tilapia farms.
Gross points out those improvements to worker conditions and environmental issues are often driven more by manufacturers, especially those in the collegiate market, than by the governments of those manufacturing nations. But where does this kind of outreach fit into the harsh economic realities of commerce? “The first things we look for are price and quality — the kinds of business metrics you’d demand from any business partner,” he explains, “but we’re also concerned about sustainability. When you see a model like this — and see first-hand how that business is making an impact on people’s lives — it elevates the relationship, and you want to drive more business to those partners.”
Gross and his colleagues at Barnes & Noble College are already thinking ahead about ways the company might help sustain future efforts, such as League’s plan to establish the Boy Scouts in El Salvador as a way of preventing recruitment to gangs. “We’re looking at tangible ways we can support those efforts and what we can do as a customer and as a college retailer to really make a difference.”