How Ethical Is Hanes? All You Need to Know

How Ethical Is Hanes? All You Need to Know

Dennis Kamprad

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As one of the world’s leading apparel companies, Hanes has been a household name in America for over a century. The company has seen its fair share of headlines over the years–not all of them positive. Yet when Hanes is called out on one thing, at the same time, we see them praised for another, so we had to ask: How ethical is Hanes?

Hanes has been criticized in the past for unethical behavior regarding workers’ rights; however, it has also taken steps to address and correct these issues. Currently, the company is an active leader in environment-sustainability and participates in the Fair Labor Association.

What’s the next headline for Hanes? That we can’t be sure of. What we do know, however, is that the company has been working non-stop to correct the issues they’ve been called out on, and they appear to be on the right track now.

Who Is Hanes?

A Fuzzy History in Cotton

The founding of Hanes dates back to 1900, 1901, or 1902, depending on the source. Originally known as Shamrock Knitting Mills, brothers Pleasant H. Hanes and John Wesley Hanes (also recorded as John G. Hanes) are credited as the founders, but this is also debated. Some even suggest that John joined later in 1909 after graduating from his studies, giving all the initial credit to Pleasant. 

However, what is agreed upon was the selling of the Hanes’ original family business–a tobacco plant (supposedly owned by Pleasant) sold to R.J Reynolds during his monopolistic buy-up of Winston-Salem, NC tobacco plants of the day. This forced them to find a new venture, and cotton textiles were what they chose. Pleasant died in 1925, and John carried the brand forward.

The company’s first noted expansion was building a new plant in 1911–the details get fuzzy after that. We see the emergence of Hanes Knitting Company, Hanes Hosiery Mills Company, and Hanes Dye & Finishing Company. The next big timeline note comes in 1965, when all Hanes companies merged, becoming the internationally-known Hanes Corporation.

An American Success Turned Global Player

It was at that time, in 1966, that the Sara Lee Corporation had started to acquire non-food businesses into their empire. Hanes was one of the many apparel companies to be eventually taken up by them in 1979. Over two decades later, in 2006, Sara Lee spun off its branded clothing business (Asia and Americas) as a separate company, officially making Hanesbrands Inc. an independent, public company

Today, Hanesbrand Inc. handles the design, manufacturing, sourcing, and sales of a wide range of essential clothing. Their brand portfolio includes Hanes, Champion, and Playtex as their three largest brands (in order, as listed) and Bali, Wonderbra, L’eggs, Duofold, Sol y Oro, and more. 

How Ethical Are They?

Riding the Ethical Rollercoaster

Initially, we found quite a bit of negative literature about Hanes addressing some of their unethical practices. However, this didn’t line up with what their websites were telling us today. Looking deeper, we noticed that much of the negative information was older data, and after a small time gap of nothing, the language suddenly became incredibly positive by 2016. 

So What Happened in 2016?

Hanesbrands got itself a new CEO in 2016, Gerald W. Evans Jr., who had been with the company since 1983 and served in many roles–including COO–before taking the executive title. He was recognized with a 2020 C-Suite Award from the Triad Business Journal as a “most-admired CEO.” 

Since Evans has stepped up, the company has made more commitments to sustainable and ethical manufacturing and has been diligently following through with them from what we can figure. Although, we couldn’t ignore the fact that in 2019, the CEO-to-average-worker-ratio was 559:1.

The Hanes for Good Initiative

The company created a website solely dedicated to its claims in corporate responsibility regarding social responsibility, environmental responsibility, and governance. 

Their 2030 goals align with the UN 2030 Agenda, showing they are committed to supporting the environment. And in general, Hanes seems to be performing well with environmental-sustainability.

The company joined the Sustainability Consortium in 2019 and the Sustainable Apparel Coalition in 2020. Plus, it is one of many forward-thinking brands using the How2Recycle smart-packaging labels to encourage and empower consumers to continue sustainability efforts after the sale. 

We’ve given Hanes high marks for environmental ethics in manufacturing for its efforts in these areas. In fact, we thought them to be not too far from Fruit of the Loom’s ethics in sustainability. However, we didn’t go further into this side of the company’s profile for this article. Mostly because we found ourselves much too concerned with what we found concerning human and workers’ rights violations. The rest of this article focuses on these ethics.

The Cons – Past Problems Speak Loudly 

We looked at criticisms that Hanes started receiving as a public company, post-Sara Lee, in 2006. It should be noted that many, if not all, company operations and general standards being enforced were likely established or re-defined during their time with the Sara Lee Corporation. We say this to give Hanes the benefit of the doubt that it’s not completely at fault for the mess it’s in. 

2007: Chinese Sweatshops Exposed

A report by China Labor Watch exposed poor working conditions for Chinese workers making textile products, Hanes included. Workers were being made to work up to 14 hours a day–that’s 420 per month!

2008: Outcry From Mediterranean Workers

Hanes took some heat from the National Labor Committee in a report about unethical conditions and issues with workers’ rights in Mediterranean factories.

Their response to the NLC Report suggests Hanes executives had a different opinion on the matter, as the company’s audits turned up, er–alternate facts, let’s say. The company made mention that they were WRAP Certified and worked closely with this organization for their auditing. Additionally, the company had started its 2-year accreditation process with the Fair Labor Association.

Hanes had also responded to human trafficking and other abuses uncovered; however, this information was no longer available

2010–2011: “Routine” Sexual Abuse and Human Rights Violations in Jordan

The Institute for Global Labour & Human Rights reported that human and worker rights violations in Jordanian sweatshops were “systematic” in 2010.

One of the many company profiles we scoured made mention of a 2011 report by the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights, which revealed “scores” of young Sri Lankan women sewing clothes for Hanes (and others) at a Jordanian factory were suffering routine sexual abuse, repeated rapes, even torture. We struggled to uncover the report itself, though we did find confirmation in a 2011 article from Asia News.

2011: Sweatshops in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Philippines

A report from the International Textile Garment and Leather Workers’ Federation found widespread abuses and violations of workers’ rights in 83 factories throughout Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines.

In the report, companies are not called out directly in their findings; they are named Company A, B, C, etc., ergo, we can’t say for sure what exact crimes were committed by whom, but we do know the guilty parties. The Annex provides a list of brands sourcing from the 83 factories researched at the time; Hanes was not listed, specifically, but Champion (one of their subsidiaries) was.

This report stood out from the rest–the list of companies, and how many, specifically. Because recently, in March of 2020, another list of 83 companies reportedly benefiting from Uighur slave labor was released. What was surprising was all the big names that showed up on both lists. (We linked them both here so you can see it for yourself.) 

Hanes and all its other brands were not found on the recent Uighur report–perhaps further proof that the company is doing its due diligence to make things right. 

2013: Wage Theft in Haiti

Then, in 2013, the Workers Rights Consortium reported that they had found massive wage theft and overwhelming non-compliance with minimum wages laws in Haiti. As it is, wages for Haitians working in the garment industry are some of the lowest worldwide. Hanes was not exempt from this illegal activity; in fact, the WRC said a collaborative report “indicated that every one of the country’s export garment factories was violating the law.”

2015: Labor Violations in Honduras

There were still unresolved issues come 2015 when a report by the US Labor Department said they had found labor rights violations in seven manufacturing factories in Honduras

At least one of these belonged to Hanesbrands, where it was discovered that agreements were established between non-unionized workers and management. According to the Office of Trade and Labor Affairs, the agreement included anti-union clauses and had records of workers that were fired for attempting to form a union.

The Pros: Current Actions Speak Louder

Fair Labor Association Participant Since 2010

Joining the Fair Labor Association shows a company’s commitment to complying with international labor standards. It should be noted that FLA doesn’t give accreditation to the company; rather, accreditation is given to their labor compliance program. This implies Hanes’ workplace standards comply with the FLA Code.  

The Modern Slavery Registry

California, the UK, and Australia have legislation that requires companies working within their borders to publicly disclose all efforts to eliminate modern slavery from their supply chains and manufacturing operations. We found the California Transparency Act link on their website, but this is what you get

This seemed a bit curious; that is, wouldn’t a company with a history of workers’ rights violations want this information readily available wherever possible–especially on their “corporate responsibility” website?

Nonetheless, documents from 2016 and 2018 were found on the Modern Slavery Registry

Corporate Human Rights Benchmark Assessments

In 2019, the CHRB assessed 200 of the world’s largest publicly-traded companies from various industries on 100 indicators regarding human rights. Hanes scored in the 50 – 60 range. Though this doesn’t sound impressive, they were among the 24 top-performing companies, and over half the group had scored in 0 – 20 ranges.

The assessment was slightly different in 2020, as the COVID-19 response had many consequences, but Hanes scored a 13 out of 26 (about the same percentage as 2019), beating the 9-point average for apparel companies. 

We think this sits in the pile of evidence suggesting the company is trying its best to do good. They are nowhere near perfect, but they seem to be performing better than many of their competitors.  

The Future Is in Your Hanes

We hope to see Hanes and its brands stay on the right path towards more ethical and sustainable business practices, particularly in the way of workers’ rights. Time will tell. But it seems as though most of these issues can be better addressed with a more aggressive compliance policy. 

While we understand the need for third-party assessments, perhaps more personal visits should be made from executives as well? This would not only put more eyes on the situation more often but also helps to keep everyone honest.

With that being said, the literature for nearly all sustainable goals (the UN’s, particularly) is quite vague; the ideas are good, but it lacks a solid action plan, and companies are often left to figure many things out for themselves. However, with the promise we’ve seen from Hanes in the last decade, there is optimism that the company will make good choices from here on into the future.

Final Thoughts

As more and more apparel companies are being called out for exploiting labor, HanesBrand Inc. has made it a point to separate itself from these modern-day practices and un-tarnish its reputation. With a commitment to a better tomorrow, consumers can look forward to a sustainable future and, in time, forgive Hanes for its untenable past.

Stay impactful,

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