Emily O’Hara

Make Your Clothes Worth Wearing: How global brands are (finally) investing in factory workers

Factory workers in Bangladesh and other low-income countries deal with undeniably miserable working conditions—the collapse of Rana Plaza last year being the most public, devastating event in recent memory. But certain companies have been taking steps to improve workers’ lives in these emerging markets for years, and one project stands out for involving the biggest of the big brands.

Levi’s, H&M, and Timberland have invested millions in training programs that teach factory workers life skills, like how to take care of their health and how to save money. It may sound basic, but the case for investing in these types of initiatives isn’t usually made to companies in a compelling way. BSR has changed that.

Business for Social Responsibility (BSR), a nonprofit that encourages social responsibility in business, has made the case that teaching these life skills to workers goes beyond a nice corporate social responsibility campaign: it actually improves a company’s bottom line. In 2007—based on global health research led by USAID with a unique mix of nonprofit consultants, academic researchers, and business leaders—BSR created HERproject, a life skills training program for garment factory workers.

HERproject (HER stands for “health enables returns”) works because the health and finance modules are introduced on the factory floor of BSR member companies, and it’s taught by local NGOs that reach employees through peer mentoring. The health curriculum is focused on general and reproductive health knowledge and preventive care promotion, while the finance curriculum includes instruction about formal savings accounts and budgeting tactics.

When workers feel well, they do well. They miss fewer days of work, meet production goals, and are able to provide for their families. This is good for business, and it’s why retailers are “stitching together women across the globe” through HERproject to realize their economic potential. To date, that’s more than 250,000 women reached at more than 200 factories through projects with 32 multinational companies and 20 local NGOs.

The nearly quarter of a million women in emerging markets who benefit from HERproject are often between the ages of 18 and 35—this is a huge demographic growing at an unprecedented rate, according to the global management consulting firm McKinsey. The World Bank predicts higher population growth rates for the next 20 years than the rapid growth seen over the last 20 years. Hard to picture? Scaling-up HERproject’s impact could mean significant micro-level gains in the lives of low-income workers, as well as macro-level gains for the global economy.

Here’s how everyone wins with HERproject:

• Building stronger economic futures: Many women are unaware of their basic human rights, so a lack of health and financial knowledge is conceivable. “Earlier, I wasn’t aware of any ways of saving money. After attending this training, I learned why I should save and how to save,” said Savithri, a woman from Hubli in Karnataka, India, who joined a training session at the factory where she works. Savithri and her husband no longer keep money in their house. “[After] this training, I also opened a personal account and now I keep my monthly savings in it.” Savithri was selected by management at the factory where she works to be a peer educator and now serves as a mentor for her fellow factory workers. “I have also spoken about this to my neighbors and friends so that they might also benefit from this knowledge,” she says. Today, BSR member companies are applauding suppliers that embrace the life skills training, and the concept has improved stakeholder relations all along the supply chain.

• Partnering with civil society: HERproject works on the ground with local NGOs, clinics, and governments to ensure experts with local knowledge of customs and language are customizing the training. By working through nonprofits like Swasti—which means “well-being” in Sanskrit—BSR can harness these organizations’ resources and expertise, and repeat Savithri’s story over and over.

• Improving return on investment: Since the training started, factory managers have “seen a reduction in turnover.” J. Crew, Abercrombie & Fitch, and Columbia Sportswear are other examples of companies that have incorporated HERproject health education and financial literacy workshops into their training, and strengthened their global supply chains because of it. Piloted in Bangladesh in 2007, HERproject has expanded into Cambodia, China, Egypt, Haiti, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Pakistan and Vietnam with plans to launch in Brazil, Ethiopia, Mexico, and Myanmar this year. Why are brands choosing to make BSR’s HER project part of their factory trainings? “HERproject shows great return on investment numbers, but that’s not what’s inspiring about the project to me. What is inspiring is seeing the women excited about the knowledge they’re gaining and sharing, and the sense of empowerment that gives them,” said Sandra Cho, corporate responsibility, Columbia Sportswear Co. That’s exciting for consumers, too.

Even more exciting? This year’s BSR Conference 2014 will bring together many of these brands to discuss transparency and the concept of “transformation,” Nov. 2-4 in New York City. Stay tuned for more long-term, cross-sector collaborations that will make the clothes we buy worth wearing.

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on Global Envision, a blog focused on market solutions to poverty managed by Mercy Corps.