Apparel Company Keeps Employees and Sustainability First During COVID-19

(Photo courtesy Gap Inc.)

When Athleta joined the Certified B Corporation community in 2018, it became one of the largest apparel brands in the world to adopt a legal structure that requires it to consider environment, workers, and community as well as shareholders in its business decisions.

In becoming a B Corp, Athleta worked with the larger team at Gap Inc. to integrate applicable shared practices in many parts of the B Impact Assessment in areas such as supply chains, salary equity and more. Educating store workers about the meaning and value of B Corp certification was another focus, as well as marketing efforts that highlight the meaning of the commitment and make the B Corp mark and message visible for customers.

That stakeholder-minded business approach takes on new significance during the current COVID-19 pandemic, which has shuttered most retail businesses and created financial uncertainty for many service industry workers.

As a member of the Gap Inc. family, Athleta has been a leader in sales as well as customer loyalty, attracting people who appreciate its sustainable styles and empowering messages. During research for my new book, Better Business: How the B Corp Movement is Transforming Capitalism, I had the opportunity to talk with Athleta’s Manager of Strategic Initiatives, Emily Allbritten, about how B Corp values shape its business decisions during more routine times and amid the current economic challenges. Below are excerpts from our conversation.

Chris Marquis: How has Athleta’s identity as a socially responsive business shaped its response to the COVID-19 crisis?

Emily Allbritten, manager of strategic initiatives at Athleta.

Emily Albritten: Being a part of a global brand, under Gap Inc., we definitely had some foresight into the impact of COVID-19 after we had some of our China stores close and the impact that had.

Regarding our stores, there was a lot of conversation and concern at Gap Inc. whether it was best to close brand by brand or close as an entire company. For retail businesses stores being closed presents a cash flow issue. So while it looks like it is just a financial decision, it’s of course a broader decision that impacts people now and in the future. Our leaders were not shy of thinking in terms of all the impacts.

But also, we knew we could draw on our capabilities as an apparel brand to make an impact as well. For instance, we made a quick pivot to design and offer masks and have donated over 100,000 to medical care providers.

Marquis: How has the B Corp community been a resource during this period?

Albritten: In this time of uncertainty, we reached out to our partners at B Lab, the nonprofit that oversees Certified B Corporations, to ask what they were hearing from other companies, what guidance they could provide from a community standpoint. It was helpful just to collaborate on the struggles that all the companies were facing. That helped us realize we weren’t alone in the decisions, that we weren’t alone in the struggle of what we were trying to decide. These are really tough decisions.

We are grateful that we’re part of a community of companies that can be a resource in this time of crisis. People are realizing it’s nice to tap into communities — whether it’s your neighborhood, whether it’s your workout community, whether it’s your friend community — when you’re in a place of real need.

Marquis: While we’re in a period of day-to-day change and uncertainty, what B Corp business issues will be even more relevant in the future?

Albritten: As we navigate this pandemic, we will also face a looming financial crisis. It will be even more important to balance how a company can be financially viable while also thinking in terms of how to be better for the environment.

There are definite parallels of this pandemic and the climate crisis. In the B Corp community, companies are making sure they handle the current situation while also thinking about the long term impact of decisions.

Marquis: How were you involved with Athleta’s initial work to become a B Corp?

Albritten:When I first joined Athleta, I was on the Strategy and Marketing Effectiveness team under Finance. I was tasked with leading the B Corp Certification which included taking the B Impact Assessment. It was a full year-long process where we utilized the assessment to help us truly measure all of the amazing work of our teams. The assessment has helped us look at the business more holistically and prioritize where we could put energy and resources for the greatest impact.

As part of Gap Inc., the company had to both secure support for the move to B Corp from a strategic standpoint; and integrate applicable Gap Inc. shared practices in many parts of the B Impact Assessment in areas such as supply chains, salary equity and more.

Marquis: How did the leadership team or the board respond to the idea of gaining B Corp certification?

Albritten: When we brought it to the rest of our leadership team, it wasn’t even a question or a debate. Everyone said, “Yes, let’s do it.” There was always support that, yes, this is something we want to do.

The exciting thing was that we didn’t actually have to change anything to fit the original certification. The one thing we did do, which did give us extra points was, change our legal certification to become a benefit corporation. Those were the kinds of questions that we then had to bring back to the Board of Gap Inc. We never had pushback from our board on putting it in our legal amendment.

The community of Certified B Corporations knows that profits don’t have to come at the expense of other stakeholders. Learn more in this downloadable report.

Marquis: What did Athleta learn during the assessment process?

Albritten: It took us about a year to get through the B Impact Assessment and answer all of the questions. We didn’t change anything that we were currently doing to get our original certification. But we did get a lot of credit because as a part of Gap Inc. we do have a lot of programs through the sustainability team.

Athleta has really been an influencer for the other Gap Inc. brands. We continue to have conversations with all of our different brands — Old Navy, Banana Republic, Intermix, and Gap — about what B Corp certification means and how they could potentially look at it from an assessment standpoint. In general, the world of retail is moving more in that sustainability direction and will continue to do so.

Marquis: How did the B Corp certification process influence Athleta’s business goals and future plans?

Albritten: For us it was quite a humbling certification, in the sense that we were working on so many great things and we thought we would pass with flying colors. Once we were digging into these questions and the very specific nuances behind each of them, we realized we actually have a long way to go. So after we’ve gone through the certification, we have internal teams set up to be tracking how we can improve in the short term and the long term.

What’s been exciting about the B Corp certification is I truly feel like it is this community of companies. It is unusual for businesses to talk about how they’re doing something — that could be a competitive advantage. But they’re willing to share these practices because it’s truly moving the world in a better place.

Marquis: What has Athleta done to inform customers and employees about the meaning of B Corp certification?

Albritten: We want to be a part of building the awareness of B Corp certification. Especially being a brand that people, consumers are aware of. We also had an internal debate when deciding how much we would do customer-facing and how much employee-facing. We decided to go forward with both. And it’s really paid off more than we expected.

In terms of employees, we’ve had so many more people come in through our recruiting process and mention one of the reasons why they applied is because of our B Corp certification — because Athleta is mission-driven and has that purpose. In raising awareness among customers, we put the B Corp mark on our windows and our apparel labels and tags. We have in-store posters that explain B Corp and more about our sustainability practices.

B The Change gathers and shares the voices from within the movement of people using business as a force for good and the community of Certified B Corporations. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the nonprofit B Lab.

Athleta Builds B Corp Awareness While Finding Strength in Community was originally published in B The Change on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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