Development Crossing

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and Sustainability

As part of our corporate social responsibility (CSR) interview series, Sybil Goldfiner, Founder and CEO of Israeli fashion company comme il faut, was kind enough to share some thoughts with us recently. A big thank you to Sybil for taking the time and a special thank you to Elaine Cohen for connecting us with Sybil.

1. Could you briefly explain your role and responsibilities within the organization?

As the Founder-Manager of the Company, it is my role to ensure we drive a dual strategy, focused on creating business success, alongside the advancement of a social and environmental agenda. We are a business created by women and for women, and through our business we promote feminist issues which must achieve broader exposure and understanding in order for women to gain freedom, respect and a rightful and influential place in society. This is the essence of our approach to Corporate Social Responsibility. I view it as my role to lead the people in our Company by inspiring them with this visionary approach to the business, ensuring the assimilation of values and principled practices, ensuring the business remains profitable and sustainable, and providing opportunities for more women to realize their potential. In recent years, I have driven a more environmental approach, which complements our focus on social issues. The combination of fashion and feminism is not an easy path – we find ourselves critical of the industry in which we have prospered. However, we are trying to influence fashion industry practices and consumer awareness through our approach to quality, long-lasting, environmentally and socially conscious fashion rather than cheap, mass-produced fast fashion and exaggerated consumerism that is prevalent today.

2. What do you feel has driven the increased C-level focus on CSR initiatives in today’s business world?

My view is that many CEO's see CSR as a PR opportunity without really understanding the depth of the commitment and the benefits that the business can gain. Marketing differentiation is necessary to gain advantage over competitors. CSR has provided an opportunity for CEO's to claim that their business is better than others. There are some who see it as a risk management benefit. However, there are very few, in my view, who really understand the essence and scope of running a socially and environmentally responsible business, and are willing to make truly responsible choices.

3. What are the top three challenges facing you as a CSR executive over the next 12-18 months? Why?

It will come as no surprise that the financial crisis has caused us to turn our attention to economic survival instead of focusing on growth and exploration of new opportunities. Our local market has been hard-hit, and as a fashion retailer operating in the high-end of the market, our marketing positioning works against us in times of financial recession. We are thankful to have a loyal customer base composed of many women who have been our customers for years, and a strong reputation in our home market, so we believe we will ride the storm. Nonetheless, we have had to make some far-reaching changes including more garments at lower price levels, drastic reduction in overheads and some layoffs. These have been very tough decisions. Our challenges are to maintain a strong business, continue our positive social impact and continue to further the position of women in society.

4. What role, if any, do you see corporations playing in poverty alleviation in the developing world? Any specific examples at your company?

I strongly believe in an equitable distribution of wealth and believe that corporations must take wealth creation and distribution factors into account when doing business. I believe global businesses have the power to enhance global well-being in a way which serves both their business interests and society. Of course, I believe that enhancing the position of women in the developing world will create improved ability to overcome social issues such as poverty. I am aware of many examples of women's empowerment programs which have led to women in the developing world becoming financially independent and contributing to the development of their societies.

One of the core principles we adhere to in our business is respect for local suppliers and local workforce. We source our manufacturing in Israel and ensure fair reward for all those involved in our supply chain. Many are women who would otherwise be unemployed. We source from women-owned businesses as far as possible. However, as a small business (SME) operating primarily in Israel, our footprint is not so large. Global businesses need to pay more attention to local economies and the development of equitable practices to empower local workforces. This, more than anything, will create improved ability to address poverty and lack of basic needs.

5. What recent CSR initiative or project are you most proud of, and why? How have you measured its success?

I would like to mention three things:
(1) our first Corporate Social Responsibility report, published in summer 2008. This was the first report published in Israel meeting level A of the Global Reporting Initiative framework, and the first report for a fashion Company in Israel (and still, the only report in Israel for this sector). It was also the first report published in Israel for an SME and a privately owned business. I am particularly proud that we were able to produce a quality report, reflecting the style and tone of our business. We believe in transparency and it was important to me to lead by example. comme il faut celebrated its 21st birthday in 2008, so the publication of this report was particularly symbolic. For those that are interested, a copy of the English version can be downloaded here:
http://www.comme-il-faut.com/user_files/english/Agenda/social/CIF_E...

(2) Our project called "Pass-it-on" –a social marketing campaign which we first ran in 2008 and repeated in 2009, in which customers were invited to return an item of comme il faut clothing they no longer used , and receive a discount worth approx $35 on the purchase of a new item. The clothes were donated to a not-for-profit second-hand clothes shop in a disadvantaged area, where they were resold. All the proceeds from the sale of these clothes were used to fund business courses for women to open their own business or learn new skills to promote their business. For many of these women, this was the only way of generating financial self-sufficiency, as they were not able to get jobs in the regular job market. The campaign was very successful in 2008 with over 2,000 garments returned and resold, and courses provided for over 30 women. It also boosted sales and, more importantly, in generated a new form of dialogue with our customers about quality and environmental-conscious consumerism. How many cheap mass-manufactured fashion items can you wear for years and then donate because they still are good to wear? Our customers appreciated this campaign as it gave them the opportunity to be part of a cycle of giving and empowerment. We do not have final figures yet for 2009 but the second round was also very successful on all fronts.

(3) Our campaign "We don’t burn bras!" – This was a social marketing campaign for our summer 2009 collection in which we invited customers to bring in old bras! For each bra we received, the customer received a discount on purchases from our new collection and we donated money to fund early detection of breast cancer for women trapped in prostitution. Prostitution is a social issue which is a reflection of the way women are mistreated in our society – society tends to "blame" prostitutes for who they are and what they do, instead of "blaming" or even "punishing" the pimps and the men who visit prostitutes. Women who engage in prostitution are the victims of our society, having been abused at an early age and having been driven into prostitution unwittingly and with no way out. They are subject to violence, abuse, humiliation and suffer from a range of health problems with little access to treatment and care. For a fashion company to take on their cause was, I may say, a very bold move. We weren't sure how our customers or even the general public would view this. In fact, we were overwhelmed with the positive response we received. Our campaign culminated in a gala benefit with performances of well-known female stand-up comics in Israel, raising further funds to support women who have been able to get out of the cycle of prostitution and manage to rehabilitate themselves. There is very little in the way of assistance for these women.
This is a further example of how we combine our desire to do good business and increase our sales whilst making a positive impact on attitudes towards women, and improving the position of women in our society.

6. Given the current economic climate, how do you see the role of CSR in corporate strategy adapting, if at all?

From what I hear, there will be more focus on the responsibility of Boards of Directors to ensure they know what's going on and exercise appropriate controls. This doesn’t apply for my business as were do not have a formal Board structure but I am considering broadening the way we consult and gain input to our strategy and direction so as to benefit from a wider range of perspectives. I believe those companies who have a genuine CSR philosophy and practice which is part of the way they do business will not abandon this entirely as a result of the crisis. However, I am sure budgets will be trimmed, and certain plans delayed until the situation stabilizes. Certainly in our business we have had to make significant adjustments and limit the scale of our csr activities.

7. Any additional thoughts?

As an SME, we feel it that Corporate Social Responsibility and transparency in business is just as relevant as it is for global companies. We believe that it is important to do business in an ethical manner, and it is our strong desire to lead by example. Regrettably, most businesses in Israel have not yet adopted this approach, and we hope that we have in our modest way contributed to developing awareness and acceptance of this business model. Thank you for the opportunity to share these thoughts with readers of DevelopmentCrossing.com.

Sybil Goldfiner
Founder and CEO of comme il faut
sybil (at) comme-il-faut.com
www.comme-il-faut.com

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Replies to This Discussion

A fascinating and encouraging interview to read, thank you Sybil.

First, I want to applaud you for demonstrating such wonderful tenacity and temerity! To pursue the goal of ‘level A’ in the Global Reporting Initiative is one thing. But to be the first fashion Company in the nation, not to mention an SME and privately owned one at that, is outstanding. Add to that the present financial climate, and I have to say, I am impressed.

But the temerity you’ve demonstrated through your ‘We Don’t Burn Bras’ program is uncommon. Most companies tend towards mediocrity for the sake of stability. What they end up with is usually pretty standard and ultimately boring. Your program, working with women and girls trapped in prostitution, well that stands out. And your understanding of the issues, demonstrated in this interview, tells me you know what you are talking about. And it tells me you believe in it. That matters. Because now I can believe you.

But I have to say, the brilliant part of the interview is found in the way you tied the companies financial success to the social marketing campaign ‘Pass-it-on’ If more companies could figure out how to be innovative and creative like this, CSR wouldn’t be seen as greenwashing or peripheral. Providing training for 30 women to move them out of poverty, creating partnerships and learning opportunities with your customers, all the while boosting sales - that’s a great example of CSR.

Thanks for taking the time to share with us Sybil. I’ll be sure to tweet/talk and share your example with many others.

Chris
That was a great interview, thanks! I was particularly interested when you talked about your supply chain. I just recently completed a paper on supply chain management at Nokia. I didn't realize all the factors that went into deciding who to consider when sourcing materials. Anyways, thanks again for the interview!
An essential and applaud-able element of comme il faut's CR approach is the relevancy to its business. In particular, the exchange of used clothing to benefit and strengthen its supply chain by promoting independence and opportunity for local women. It's a win win formula, not just 'better than thou' PR, but actually solves a problem that all parties can benefit from.

I am a student of sustainable business in the US, and the challenge I see is in creating a solid business case for sustainability initiatives that have as their primary driver the notion that efforts to maintain and improve our stock of social and environmental resources will provide net benefits for all affected parties, including the business.

One more very important element: The Creation and Equitable Distribution of Wealth. Traditional corporate models have been very short sighted in this regard (especially in the US) by thinking that their primary responsibility is the creation of as much wealth as possible solely for its stock holders, which of course feature the $500mm C-suite execs. The obscene excesses of many corporate execs and large stock holders has not benefited the overall social wealth as can be witnessed by our current global economic failures. This ultimately created as much of a detriment to the businesses as for the communities in which they operate.

One thing I would like to have heard more about are specifics related to comme il faut's environmental initiatives and the benefits associated with them.

Thanks for the great interview, and best wishes for the future.

Peter
hello Peter, thanks for commenting on this interview. I work closely as a consultant to commme il faut, so will respond on their behalf. The Company's environmental activities are also extensive and a full environmental survey was performed of all the company's environmental impacts. All fabrics are natural and not synthetic, with some organics; comme il faut has converted all packaging from plastic bags etc to packaging made of recycled waste or unusable cement sacks! which would otherwise go to the rubbish dump, recently comme il faut opened an "alterations" store for customers to bring garments to be repaired or modified to avoid having to throw away or purchase new, which is an environmentally driven action, the Company recycles every bit of waste, using all forms of unwanted items for store displays and other uses, comme il faut offset 15% of carbon emissions in 2008. Sybil Goldfiner herself drives a hybrid! I think these are the main things. By the way, regarding your point about distriution of wealth, comme il faut also distibutes 20% of annual profits to employees, which is quite a positive step for a private company, and the ratio of CEO pay to lowest salary in the Company is very modest. Thank you for your comments and for your interest, best wishes, elaine
Just a heads up, we'll be relaunching the interview series in the coming weeks!

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