The private sector constitutes a large portion of wealth and job creation in most countries, rendering it a powerful social tool that can be used to alleviate poverty and promote the wellbeing of the general public. Unfortunately, historically, this tool has been used to promote the interests of private actors.
The interests of private actors and the interests of the public have often come in contradiction, particularly as the world has globalized. However, the alignment of public and private interests is possible when you consider that those living in extreme poverty represent a largely untapped and mismanaged resource for a lot of private actors. When determining what role the private sector can play in poverty alleviation, it must be understood that poor corporate labor practices have contributed greatly to global poverty and proper practices have the ability to reverse it.
Corporate Social Responsibility
Those living in poverty, particularly extreme poverty, are often surrounded by economic deprivation, including unemployment, low wages and a lack of investment from private actors. Corporate social responsibility is one of the many avenues that can be taken to bring the structures and goals of the private sector in line with the needs of the public.
Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is a business model of private accountability to the public, meaning that businesses and corporations incorporate practices that create positive social impacts domestically and throughout the world. CSR is a broad concept, allowing it to manifest itself in several different ways. There is certainly room for error in the implementation of CSR practices, but when carried out effectively, CSR can serve as a sharp tool for alleviating poverty while also increasing a corporation’s bottom line.
Patagonia: A Model for Effective Corporate Social Responsibility
The apparel industry is one of the most competitive in the private sector. With that competition, there has historically been a “race to the bottom.” Organizations have looked to manufacture in places with the most lenient regulations on worker rights, wages and environmental waste. These places, non-coincidentally, tend to be the most impoverished. However, this has not been the case within Patagonia.
Patagonia has been integrating CSR into its business model since its conception in 1973. The corporation operates in several nations around the world, with portions of its manufacturing happening in Sri Lanka, Mexico, Thailand and more. The company has prioritized its Fair Trade Certifications, paying a premium on top of the costs that they already incur. This money goes straight into the hands of factory workers who get to vote on its use. This not only ensures that Patagonia’s workers are well compensated but also that the most pressing needs of the community are met.
At the Hirdaramani Mihilia CKT Factory, workers decided to spend their premium on a daycare. For many women in the factory, employment would not be possible without it. The piece of mind workers get from knowing that their kids are not only safe but progressing in their development, allows for more diligent and quality work in the factory.
What Role Can the Private Sector Play in Poverty Alleviation?
Fair Trade USA CEO, Paul Rice, stated that the organization has to “prove that fair trade is good for business.” Patagonia is one of its partner companies that is doing just that for them. Patagonia has more Fair Trade Certified styles than any other apparel brand, and it is expanding every year. In 2017, 30 percent of its product was fair trade certified, indicating that there is plenty of room for further expansion, but also that expanding the scale of CSR practices can be sustainable for business as well—even when its competitors do not engage in the same practices.
Consumer awareness of the Fair Trade Certified seal has almost doubled to 63 percent since 2008. As the world has globalized and the reality of billions of people living on less than two dollars a day has become common knowledge, consumers have begun to pay greater attention to how their goods are made. Corporate responsibility is becoming the standard, and as consumers, governments and most importantly corporations themselves continue to promote and enforce that standard, the number of exploited and impoverished workers will fall.
Today, transparency and responsibility translate into dollars. More consumers are willing to pay for goods that they know were made ethically, employee turnover is lowest at corporations that integrate CSR and workers in developing countries perform better when their wages and standard of living are adequate. More than 1,250 corporations have recognized this to be true and that number is sure to increase in the coming years. So what role can the private sector play in poverty alleviation? The answer is, quite simply, a large one and one that can also benefit their business as well as the public.
– Julius Long