The clothing factory collapse in Bangladesh that killed 1,129 workers in May tragically dramatized the need for a movement that's been building for two decades: corporate social responsibility.
The idea of this movement is that good behavior can be cultivated among employers through a combination of public pressure and consumer purchases - rewarding companies with loyalty when they show care for the environment or treat workers well. It may sound pie-in-the-sky, but in fact 57 percent of Fortune 500 companies issued reports about their environmental, social and governance strategies in 2011, more than double the previous year, according to the Governance & Accountability Institute, a research firm.
These are leading companies protecting their reputations. And, as business guru Warren Buffett says, it takes 20 years to build a reputation and just five minutes to lose it. Just ask BP PLC, after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, or Apple Inc., following the revelations about poor working conditions and suicides at its Foxconn factory in southwest China. Although Apple sales remain strong, the company has agreed to rounds of audits of its factories by labor and environmental organizations.
The trail of responsibility for the factory collapse in Bangladesh led to western retailers that sell clothing made there. Of course, giant American retailers didn't inspect the Rana Plaza building for safety violations - that was the job of the Bangladeshi government - but they chose to buy the clothing from poorly regulated countries, in exchange for low-low prices.
Last week, in a nod to corporate social responsibility, Wal-Mart, Gap, Target, Macy's and other retailers agreed to donate $42 million for worker safety in Bangladesh, including inspections and an anonymous hotline for workers to report problems. One global activist group, Avaaz, launched a Facebook and Twitter campaign to pressure Gap to sign, when it looked as though that company might not. The Internet has put reputation management on steroids.
Of course, it's possible we shoppers will see higher prices for clothing now, as a result, but the peace of mind will be worth it. "Someone selling a T-shirt for $1.50 is taking big risks," Philip Rooke of T-shirt seller Spreadshirt.com told USA Today. "It is not possible to do it ethically."
Wouldn't it be great if stores had a way of signaling to shoppers that the $2.50 we're now paying for a T-shirt means we can rest easy that nobody died sewing it? Like the disclaimers in films - "no animals were harmed in this film's production" - or fair trade stickers on coffee and chocolate, or the triangular "recycled" logo on paper products.
A seminal thought leading to corporate social responsibility was the idea of a "triple bottom line" formulated in 1994 by British planner John Elkington. He said companies could go beyond reporting their bottom-line profit to a broader measurement of environmental and social achievement. It became known as the Three P's: profit, planet and people.
Personally, I think we need more emphasis on the people. I would be willing to pay more for a restaurant meal if I knew the waitress were able to afford child care. "The Third Shift," a report issued last week and funded by the Ms. Foundation for Women, showed that, with a federal minimum wage for tipped workers of $2.13 an hour, it's nearly impossible to pay for safe, high-quality care given the unpredictable, late hours.
Or perhaps we could devise a sticker or a logo to convey to consumers that a given company offers paid sick days - 38 percent of American workers don't have them - or paid maternity/paternity leave.
Those are my priorities; others will have their own. A diverse workforce? A no-layoff policy? A smaller carbon footprint? Profit-sharing? The possibilities are plentiful when capitalism adopts a social conscience.