Ahead of His Time: Chris Fox, VP Corporate Responsibility at HanesBrands
On one of his first days of work at Sara Lee Corporation—now HanesBrands—Chris Fox was introduced to the world of factory compliance. The Kathy Lee Gifford sweatshop scandal had just broken, revealing the appalling conditions and child labor practices that were prevalent in the factories that produced clothing under her label. As legal counsel for Sara Lee, Fox witnessed firsthand the seeds of a movement that, over the course of many years, would result in a change to consumer consciousness and buying behavior.
A lawyer by trade, Fox earned his joint MBA and JD degrees from Wake Forest University in 1993. His long-term goal was to apply critical thinking from his legal training to solve problems in the private sector. Marrying business growth goals in a price-driven industry with the seemingly conflicting ethical mandate to do the right thing was right up his alley.
In 2007, after HanesBrands broke off from Sara Lee, Fox was tasked with spearheading the company’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) efforts. As part of reinventing the culture at the newly formed company, the entire work force—at every level, in every function—became increasingly accountable for sustainable, ethical production of apparel.
For starters, the entire management team signed a comprehensive energy policy, and the corporation committed itself to aggressive five-year goals in reductions of energy use, carbon dioxide emissions and water usage, and significant increases in energy production from renewable sources. Since about 80 percent of HanesBrands’ products are manufactured in company-owned factories, that was the logical place to start.
“Ninety-five percent of the industry is entirely sourced,” says Fox. “But since the vast majority of our products are made in our own plants, how we think about environmental and social issues is fundamentally different. The interaction with our factories and communities is driven by the fact that they are made up of our people, and that is where they live, work and raise their kids.”
By 2012, the five-year goals for environmental stewardship had been exceeded, and they were subsequently increased with a 2020 deadline.
As a bonus, the process changes in manufacturing resulted in a direct and immediate benefit to the bottom line. “Since we reduced energy consumption by 20 percent, we reduced cost by millions every year,” explains Fox. “It has made perfect business sense.”
Despite the company’s incredible success in sustainability, Fox noticed that newcomers to the apparel industry were getting more traction by marketing themselves as CSR enthusiasts. Recognizing that HanesBrands needed to do more to make its efforts known, the entire CSR effort was rebranded as Hanes for Good.
“We do realize that the space has reached a tipping point, and by not saying enough, we are doing ourselves a disservice because that vacuum is filled with what people assume,” says Fox.
As an example, HanesBrands acquired Alternative Apparel—a supplier that dedicates itself to sustainable products—in October 2017. When they learned their products have a much more difficult time affecting what goes on at the manufacturing level,” says Fox. “For example, we will consume more recycled polyester [for cotton/poly fleece] than an Alternative Apparel could put in their product in decades. As a result, the story that Alternative can now tell is much stronger.”
In addition to environmentalism, Fox is equally passionate about community development. Roughly 10 years ago, he was looking to fund an extensive community improvement program that would target projects such as health care, education and infrastructure development for the communities where projects through recycling. Green for Good, a company-wide philanthropic program, was born.
“We took a hard look at waste in manufacturing, including trash on the floor, skids and cardboard—anything that was sent to landfills—and figured out how to sell it to recyclers. Every year, the program generates about $2 million, much of which funds community projects in El Salvador, Honduras, the Dominican Republic, Europe and Asia,” says Fox.
For the roughly 60,000 manufacturing employees at HanesBrands, the results of Green for Good have been life changing. Each year, Fox attends the high school graduation ceremonies for the company’s employees in the continuing education program. In 2017, of the 150 graduates in Honduras, the one he remembers most is Felipa Benitez, who was the graduation speaker.
Benitez, a 34-year-old mother of two, could not read or write and had never attended school when she was hired by HanesBrands eight years ago. Starting at the first-grade level, she completed high school, triumphantly read her graduation speech at the ceremony and was awarded a college scholarship by HanesBrands.
Fox stresses that CSR is different for every company and is based on many factors, including the supply chain model. For apparel companies wanting to shift toward a more CSR-focused culture, he recommends engaging with peer-to-peer organizations such as the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, the Fair Labor Association and the Sustainability Consortium to get an idea of how similarly structured organizations are tackling the issues.
“My challenge was taking this big enterprise and effectively and appropriately using the resources to both meet the obligations to our shareholders and, at the same time, make a true and real difference in the lives of people.”
When Fox isn’t on the road, he plays golf—although not as much as he’d like—and is enjoying being an empty nester with wife Lynn. His oldest son, Tyler, attends the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, and his youngest, Robbie, attends Elon University.
Although originally from Ocean Township, New Jersey, Fox and his family have now long-planted roots in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where he serves on the board of directors of Goodwill Industries of Northwest North Carolina and the United Way of Forsyth County. Fox says the stewardship culture that he helped build and continues to drive has become embedded in every aspect of his life. “Everything that we do in the CSR space at HanesBrands is the backbone of how we think, act and interact with both the global and local communities of which we are a part.”