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Conversation with Abel Navarrete on Corporate Social Responsibility

Abel Navarette

What is your primary charge as Director of Corporate Responsibility for Columbia Sportswear?

I’m responsible for leading corporate initiatives around social, environmental and community involvement. With regard to our focus on environment, we are interested in lessening the impact of our operations on the ecology of places where we operate. We look closely at how we are impacting the environment with the way we operate.

We don’t own any factories – we contract with companies that employ factory workers. Most of the work is done in Asia. We have a code of conduct that suppliers have to follow. We take a close look at hiring practices of our contractors, and how we’re impacting the communities outside the United States. How do we give back to those communities? How do we ensure that factor workers are being paid fair wages? How do we make sure that we provide a safe work environment? What kind of community projects can we strategically engage in?

What does corporate social responsibility mean for Columbia Sportswear?

Our approach focuses on continuous improvement and being really transparent with what we do. We’re not perfect, and we realize that we can’t fix everything overnight. We’re always working on improving our operations. Our main challenge is being able to balance the economic demands of being a strong competitor with our social and environmental impact. Working alone is never enough. We’re only one brand – one company – so we try to reach out to other groups in the industry to come up with solutions. How can we make change together?

Why is corporate social responsibility important to Columbia Sportswear?

It’s part of doing business -- we have a responsibility to give back. We are a public company, and we do profit off people who make our products. We take natural resources from the environment.

What was your career path leading up to your current post?

I started in the industry right out of college. I studied business management, focusing on finance. I’m originally from Mexico. I came with my family to Southern California when I was 3 years old. In Los Angeles County, the garment industry is a huge employer of Latino and other immigrants. Growing up, my Mom worked at one of the local factories. She was a single parent, so I remember going to the factory with her on Saturdays, and stay with her all day.

When I graduated from college, I met folks who worked in the industry. I was fascinated with the idea of being the person responsible for ensuring that workers get paid fairly. There’s so much opportunity to impact people’s lives in a positive way.

What do you consider as the most challenging aspect of your job?

Balancing economic performance with social responsibility. As a public company, our shareholders expect growth. Coming up with a strategic plan on how to balance out those demands. It’s important to take a holistic view.

That is why corporate social responsibility is part of overall business strategy. When we make a change, we make sure that it is sustainable and long-lasting. Goals for social and environmental stewardship are embedded into our business processes.

Getting buy-in for strategies is important. People respond well to a well-developed business case for any new initiative. First and foremost is ensuring that the approaches are aligned with the overall business strategy. Then, building credibility and creating support for business units that will be impacted are also important.

What is the personal significance of your appointment to the board of the Hispanic Chamber?

I came from a family where I’m the first one to attend college in the U.S. That is a main reason why education has always been very important to me. Providing scholarships and educational opportunities is one of the key things that the Hispanic Metropolitan Chamber is known for. The chamber has done a great job in developing and investing in future leaders of the Latino community in Oregon.

What do you enjoy most about the work you do every day?

It’s rewarding to see successful and sustainable initiatives that are eventually adopted as part of the overall business strategy. When making decisions about social investments, we are guided by areas of focus, prioritized for different countries. We know that solutions hat work in one region may not be applicable in another. Working with a budget, we prioritize programs that align with strategies, focus areas and objectives.

How does your cultural background impact the way you lead?

The industry is often criticized for its appetite for cheap labor, and for being a major part of lost jobs here in the United States. My background as part of a working family really hits home. A factory in a developing country is not always a bad thing. People look at corporate social responsibility as it applies to apparel and footwear companies, sweatshops are the first to come to mind. But in many cases, the apparel industry makes a positive impact on the communities where we do business. Especially in developing countries, it’s often the first industry there, employing people, enabling them to have more income and a better life.

The real challenge is how to do business in a responsible manner in other parts of the world. Figuring out what can we – as a company – do to help communities continue to improve. That is our biggest challenge and opportunity.

Spring 2010 Colors of Influence

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related links

Corporate Social Responsibility at Columbia Sportswear

Video: A Look Inside the Factory Audit Process

Corporate Social Responsibility Newswire

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