When I think of Valentine’s Day, I think of greeting cards emblazoned with hearts, chocolates, and romantic dinners with a date. Chances are, corporate social responsibility would not be a topic for the evening. However, this year I can’t help but think of the story of a company who had a very special Valentine’s Day gift for its employees. This company realized that many of its workers in Mexico could not afford the costs of getting married. So, they started an annual Valentine’s Day wedding party, hosting the ceremony and covering many of the costs for them, allowing their workers to marry their loved ones in dignity. Beyond the wedding party, the company also provides preventative health care and training and development opportunities, including subsidizing more than 2,300 employees to obtain master’s degrees and other formal education. Additionally, they made a commitment to renewable energy by installing the largest rooftop solar facility in Latin America. The reason they did all these things these things was that they decided that investing in their workers and protecting the environment matched their corporate values. The company is Plantronics, and it is one of three U.S. companies (and the first-ever medium-sized company), which were chosen to receive the Secretary of State’s Award for Corporate Excellence (ACE) this year.
The ACE is awarded to U.S. companies which have set examples of American leadership through their good corporate citizenship abroad. Over the past year, I became intimately familiar with these companies and their best practices regarding sustainable development, respect for human and labor rights, and environmental protection in their overseas operations. In Cameroon, Taylor Guitars, one of the world’s leading guitar makers, stepped up to address a pressing environmental challenge– the serious depletion of biodiversity and other natural resources. Recognizing that the ebony wood trade in Africa has significantly diminished the supply of this beautiful tree, the company bought a mill in Cameroon and fundamentally changed the entire ebony trade. Ebony harvesters historically used only pure black ebony logs and left the multi-colored logs on the forest floor. Taylor, however, decided to make its most high-end guitars, used by famous musicians around the world, with multi-colored ebony. By actively increasing consumer awareness, they were able to change the market itself and simultaneously conserve Cameroon’s ebony. They did so while raising the wages of local employees, advocating legal and policy reforms to improve the permitting process around the ebony trade, and protecting the environment and the rights of other forest users.
Finally, in Honduras, following a contentious labor dispute in 2009 at one of its local factories, Fruit of the Loom executives recognized it was time for a change. The company closely coordinated with trade union and other civil society leaders, and signed a groundbreaking collective bargaining agreement, which is now a model for Central America. Fruit of the Loom committed to ensuring respect for the rights of workers to form and join trade unions; to freedom of association training; to free transportation to and from work; to free lunches; to investments in better machinery; and to wage increases, among other benefits. Additionally, Fruit of the Loom provided 10,000 health screenings and reports it is on track to have 100 percent of its electricity supply for Honduran operations come from renewable sources, truly earning their ACE in the category of large-sized business.
A good product is only part of what makes a successful company. In order to have the support of your workforce and the community you operate in, you also have to have and put into practice good corporate values. As a consumer and an officer at the U.S. Department of State who supports efforts to promote corporate social responsibility, I was impressed to see that these three companies are doing business the right way. As a citizen, I am also proud that they are serving as examples to the rest of the world of America’s leadership. These companies know that investing in local communities benefits everyone. On Valentine’s Day, many people will be demonstrating their love by buying flowers and candy. But, for U.S. businesses operating abroad, fostering respect for workers’ rights and the environment is the best way to truly show where their heart is.
About the Author: Gregory Maggio serves as a senior advisor in the State Department's Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs.
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