HOLMES REPORT: The Gap's social-responsibility report proves that firms understand benefits of disclosure

I was wrong. Last September, when Nike settled a lawsuit brought by consumer activist Mark Kasky, I warned that the decision could have a chilling effect on corporate free speech.

I was wrong. Last September, when Nike settled a lawsuit brought by consumer activist Mark Kasky, I warned that the decision could have a chilling effect on corporate free speech.

The suit charged Nike with deceptive advertising under California law, based on press releases and letters to the editor defending its overseas labor practices. Nike's settlement left in limbo the whole question of whether corporate discussion about critical issues was constitutionally protected (in the same way activists' discussion of those issues is), and I worried that companies would back off social reporting out of fear that they, too, would be sued. But there does not appear to have been any significant decline in the publication of corporate social and environmental reports, and recently The Gap - a company that has been at the center of the same storm that engulfed Nike - issued its first CSR report, to almost universal acclaim. The Gap's report provided what corporate communications VP Alan Marks calls "the greatest degree of transparency we've ever provided." Nike appears to have managed the production of the report with the kind of integrity too often lacking in social-reporting initiatives, engaging socially responsible investment funds and activist groups like the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility to oversee the process. The result is a "warts and all" profile that includes, for example, charts that illustrate the distribution and frequency of violations of the company's Code of Vendor Conduct. Many executives continue to worry that such transparency simply opens their company to attack, but The Gap comes across credibly as a company trying to do the right thing: imperfect but improving. "We believe that garment and other manufacturing workers around the world deserve better than the reality that many unfortunately face," says Gap president and CEO Paul Pressler in a press release accompanying the new report. "We recognize and embrace our duty to take a leadership role, and our first social-responsibility report discusses in detail our comprehensive efforts and commitments. We are convinced that collaborative, multi-stakeholder engagement is the only way to create sustainable changes for garment workers worldwide. We are working diligently toward that goal." Don't get me wrong. I still feel the original Kasky suit was anti-democratic - the same way the spurious lawsuits brought against activist groups for product defamation are anti-democratic - and I still believe the California Supreme Court's decision that Nike's speech is undeserving of protection was misguided. But The Gap report shows that companies will not be intimidated into silence and that many still feel the benefits of social reporting now outweigh the risks. Unless Kasky files suit against The Gap tomorrow.
  • Paul Holmes has spent the past 17 years writing about the PR business for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation Management. He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of www.holmesreport.com.

  • Have you registered with us yet?

    Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

    Register
    Already registered?
    Sign in

    Would you like to post a comment?

    Please Sign in or register.