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Fels speaks on global, social responsibility

November 2008

Don Fels '76, came to campus and spoke to a class earlier this year on corporate and social responsibility in the global marketplace.

Graves Imports

Fels knows a lot about the subject. He currently works for Graves Imports, a company that specializes in private label shoes, based in Nashville, Tenn. He has been involved in the manufacturing and importing of footwear from Asia for the past 30 years. He became involved in researching this issue as the roles of corporate and social responsibility developed.

A year ago, the College featured stories about social responsibility in this newsletter. Fels wrote to Molly Eckman, professor of design and merchandising, who teaches a class on international production and trade in the apparel industry. Eckman’s class addresses corporate and social responsibility, which includes the need for sensitivity to cultural norms and religious practices in the global production of apparel and footwear products.

Guest lecturer

The conversation led to Fels being a guest lecturer in her class last fall. Fels believes that an understanding of corporate and social responsibility is imperative for students who are going into the design and merchandising field to learn prior to holding managerial positions in which important decisions are made.

In his lecture, Fels said that social responsibility has become more relevant over the last ten years since an increasing number of U.S. based companies decided to outsource.

“Social responsibility wasn’t in people’s minds when I started,” said Fels. “It was not uncommon to see people in Asia, workers in the factories, with one or two fingers missing. But no one really cared. The concept of social responsibility just wasn’t there.”

Uncovered in the mid 1990s

“The media turned on to working conditions for foreign laborers,” he said. “Every major company adopted terms of engagement with their overseas operations.” As this topic became more relevant, companies quickly improved conditions in order to bring their standards into compliance.

“In the beginning, efforts were focused specifically on lighting, emergency exits, fire extinguishers, ventilation, noise, bathrooms, and dorms,” he said. “Those didn’t take very long to correct. Then came more ‘transparency,’ and companies hired compliance officers at many places to look at all the working conditions, including environmental issues.”

“Don’s presentation to the class contributed immensely to setting the stage for the entire course,” said Eckman. “He really brought to life for the students many of the topics that we discussed in the course and we continually referred back to his comments throughout the semester.”

Story originally published in the College of Applied Human Sciences Magazine, spring 2008