Big, green and with blood on its hands

Top US retailer Kohl’s is really, really proud of its award-winning environmental credentials. It has a whole website devoted to “Kohl’s green scene”, and it sees being retail’s green giant as a reflection of its corporate responsibility. But workers around the world regret the firm has not been so diligent when it comes to sorting out the working environment in the sweatshops it supports.  

Kohl’s is a company that considers itself in the vanguard when it comes to corporate good practice on environmental matters. On 2 December this year, Kohl’s declared it had become “the first retailer to announce a commitment to reach net zero US greenhouse gas emissions as part of its ongoing partnership with the US Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) Climate Leaders program.”

It had already received the agency’s Green Power Leadership Award for both 2007 and 2008.

According to Ken Bonning, Kohl’s executive vice president of store planning and logistics: “We want to demonstrate that it is possible for a large company to have a successful business model and operate in a sustainable way.”

It’s the type of corporate green hype that rankles with the US-based International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF). “Unfortunately Kohl’s focus on sustainability hasn’t spilled over to the labour rights of its workers,” it says. “Kohl’s has been connected to a number of sweatshops over the past two decades and yet hasn’t taken the necessary steps to implement its code of conduct (called the Terms of Engagement) which includes freedom of association.”

Working for Scrooge: Worst companies of 2009 for the Right to Associate, published by ILRF on 10 December, puts the spotlight on a part of the company’s “successful business model” that isn’t winning any prizes. This includes human rights abuses at the firm’s suppliers in Nicaragua and Turkey.

They earn the company a place on ILRF’s “top offenders” list, which features corporations “selected on the basis of their ties to violence against trade unions and suppression of the universal right to organise.”

‘Working for Scrooge’ profiles Menderes Tekstil, a textile factory located in Denizili, Turkey, that produces bed linens for Kohl’s and other leading retailers. Workers began to affiliate with the textiles workers’ union TEKSIF, in response to unsafe working conditions in the factory that led to numerous injuries and the deaths of four workers.

“One incident which took place on November 20, 2008 resulted in the death of an employee when he fell into the funnel of a coal boiler. After the tragic accident management ordered three workers to climb into the funnel in order to retrieve their slain colleague. They were all severely injured in the process,” the report notes.

Conditions at the factory were “extremely dangerous”, the report says, adding attempts to unionise the factory were “stifled”.

This is clearly at odds with Kohl’s corporate policy. Kohl’s corporate governance webpages note: “Responsible corporate citizenship is a company core value, therefore social, economic and environmental considerations are integrated into our purchasing and risk management processes. Incorporating socially responsible principles into our daily business activities generates benefits not only in the present, but also for the future.”

And the company’s ‘Terms of Engagement for Kohl’s Business Partners’ states: “Kohl’s will only do business with Business Partners whose workers are treated fairly and who in all cases are present voluntarily, not put at risk of physical harm, fairly compensated, and allowed the right of free association and not exploited in any way.”

Commenting on the violations in Turkey, the ILRF report notes: “Despite Kohl’s own high moral standards and repeated calls for action, it continues to avoid comment or action since these events were brought to light.”

Others on ILRF’s list of the worst companies for anti-union behaviour in 2009 include food giants Dole, with violations in Cameroon, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador and the Philippines; Kraft, with violations in Argentina, China, Honduras and the United Kingdom; and Nestlé, with violations in Colombia, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia and Tunisia.

Kraft Foods, the largest food company in the US and the second largest in the world, recently fired 160 workers at a plant in Argentina, who had protested over the company’s inadequate preventive actions on swine flu after an outbreak in the country.

All four companies make grand claims about their corporate responsibility. All four are well loved household names. And all four are on ILRF’s “top offenders” list when it comes to failure to act on labour rights violations in the supply chain.

As for Kohl’s, there’s something unsavoury about parading the corporation’s fashionable “green scene” while ignoring the unseen human rights violations that cast doubt on the entire “socially responsible principles” it says permeate its “purchasing and risk management processes.”

Workers in Turkey died making products sold by Kohl’s. In both Nicaragua and Turkey they were fired for standing up against oppressive and unjust working conditions.

Is that really the record of an “environmentally friendly” company? I suppose it depends whether a corporation believes workers are part of the world it is so publicly and profitably seeking to save.

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