Interview with Doug Cahn

Human Rights Dialogue 1.9 (Summer 1997): "Innovative Human Rights Strategies in East Asia"

Interview with Doug Cahn

Dialogue: What are the motivating factors behind Reebok’s Human Rights Production Standards and similar efforts in corporate responsibility?

Cahn: I see three primary motivations. First, at the end of the day we are human beings with an interest in treating others with respect. The more aware we become of labor conditions in the factories we use, the more motivated we become to respond out of a sense of basic values. Second, there is a strong correlation between high quality products and high quality workplace conditions. Dirty and unsafe factories, or factories where workers are required to work extended hours, produce inferior prod-ucts. Third, in a world where communications are instan-taneous, there is a greater need for companies to protect brand reputation and to reflect consumer concerns. As part of the soccer ball initiative, for example, we are now labeling Reebok soccer balls: “Guarantee: Manufactured Without Child Labor.” Because of the production and monitoring standards of the Reebok program, we can make this announcement to consumers with confidence.

Dialogue: What are some of the greatest obstacles to enlarging corporate responsibility?

Cahn: The greatest difficulty is finding ways to communicate broad human rights principles across cultures and in operational language that pertains to the factory workplace. We need to come to a better understanding of these principles based on internationally recognized standards while at the same time being sensitive to diverse cultures. Failure comes out of misunderstanding. What is needed is greater education and training of the work force at all levels. If everyone starts to see the workplace through the same eyes, it becomes possible to come to a mutual understanding of what needs fixing. Another issue that needs to be resolved is defining “independent external monitoring” in a way that is acceptable to business, governments, and NGOs. Independent monitoring of company practices is seen as a solution to abuses, but it is insufficiently understood. If companies fund monitoring, is it no longer independent? Does independent monitoring imply that those conducting it can’t have an interest in its outcome, and if so, should constraints on monitoring apply to NGOs as well? What is also needed is a refinement of the roles to be played by all those who have a part in protecting workers’ rights: the governments, NGOs, and businesses. When is it the responsibility of a government to adopt regulatory mechanisms to ensure freedom of association? What is the role of business in protecting that right in the absence of government protections? What is the role of the cottage industry of monitors and certifiers that has cropped up to meet businesses’ needs to be assured that violations are not taking place?

Dialogue: How effective have Reebok’s standards been?

Cahn: A majority of factories we monitor are in compliance with our standards. In a few cases, factories we had been working with were unable or unwilling to correct substandard conditions and, as a result, we terminated our business relationship with them. Other factories are engaged in good faith efforts to improve workplace conditions at our request. Overall, we have a greater positive impact if we help improve conditions, rather than terminate relations with factories.

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