Investigative journalist Rachel Louise Snyder profiles Lever Style's exemplary social responsibility standards in her book Fugitive Denim.


March 2008

Below is an excerpt from pages 256-281 in Fugitive Denim by Rachel Louise Snyder:

I had no illusions about being taken to a factory with sub-par conditions, but what I found was even beyond the best I'd seen in Cambodia. Later, I learned it was one of Gap's model factories (managers accuse Gap of having some of the strictest professional standards—a fact other buyers benefit from). Lever [Style], a family-run outfit begun in Hong Kong in 1956, employed five thousand people between this factory and another compound several hours away. The CEO was a tall, funky Gen-Xer who'd graduated from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and returned to run the family business... he'd just come from having lunch with five of his factory floor workers who'd been recognized for their productivity. They were awarded a meal away from the canteen in the trendy administrative offices with their boss. Not a bad incentive, overall. Such lunches apparently occurred a handful of times throughout the year.

For all the competitiveness, though, [Lever's Executive Vice President Joe Yuen] and the Lever factory have done far more than most factories in Cambodia who comply with the strict labor codes. Recently, Lever became one of the roughly hundred and thirty factories in China to receive what is called an SA 8000 certification. SA 8000 is a relatively new program in the industry that seeks to certify individual factories.

Based on ILO and United Nations workplace conventions, SA 8000 has helped improve working conditions in factories and firms in more than forty countries around the world. To get such certification, a factory undergoes substantial auditing by trained professionals. In the case of Lever, the process took a year and a team of eleven auditors, and cost less than fifty thousand dollars. It's a sum Joe claimed wasn't substantial given the benefits, which he believed were a stable, happy workforce, credibility for international buyers, and increased productivity.

Of the hundred and thirty or so SA 8000 certified factories in China, about four made things for Gap Inc.

It occurred to me that this factory, with its unbelievably good working conditions, its global certification, and its high-quality product, is exactly Italy's nightmare.

Lever was undoubtedly a model factory, as is New Island, the Marks & Spencer factory in Cambodia, but if they're so wonderful, why aren't the others following in line? Were companies like Lever and New Island the equivalent of corporations in American who went into the red to build cafeterias and gyms for their employees? Even Stanley Szeo, Lever's CEO, said that changing the factory paradigm from sweatshop to archetype comes at a cost to the general business model: Earnings have not yet materialized in a way that suggests they've mastered the balancing act.