How She Leads: Gap's Kindley Walsh Lawlor

How She Leads is a regular feature on GreenBiz.com that spotlights the career paths of women who have moved into influential roles in sustainable business. In tandem with the release of Gap Inc.'s fifth Social and Environmental Responsibility (SER) report today, Maya Albanese interviews Kindley Walsh Lawlor, VP of Social and Environmental Responsibility.

Gap Inc. operates about 3,100 stores worldwide with more than 134,000 employees, and is the company behind such iconic brands as GapKids, BabyGap, GapBody, Banana Republic, Old Navy, Athleta, and Piperlime. The company was founded in 1969 with just a single store in San Francisco. Gap monitors factories in about 50 countries each year and has established a Water Quality Program to monitor the denim laundries' wastewater discharge.

The company has a comprehensive approach to environmental responsibility by focusing on three areas where the greatest positive impact can be made: reducing energy use, shifting to more sustainable design, and reducing waste.

Lawlor highlights key announcements in the company's new report including Gap's commitment to reduce absolute greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent throughout its U.S. operations by 2015, compared to 2008 levels. Lawlor explains why the apparel industry is positioned to make a significant social and environmental impact on business operations at a global scale.

Maya Albanese: Let's start off with a bit of your background -- what is your history at Gap, and how did you acquire your current role?

Kindley Walsh Lawlor: Almost 15 years ago, I started at Gap Inc. in men's production at the Banana Republic brand and then moved to Gap brand where I then covered all of adult apparel. I was very intrigued by my travels to visit various stakeholders and left with a lot of unanswered questions.

When I joined the company, there was a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) department, so I called the head of CSR and asked if we could collaborate on something. We ended up working together on an internal brand engagement project with the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI). The work we did on purchasing practices is still very important to how business decisions impact the lives of workers.

By that point, the issues had gotten under my skin -- and that's an understatement. I was going out on maternity leave with my first child, and I knew I wanted a different purpose when I returned. I started in the CSR department almost 5 years ago after returning from leave.

MA: Why do you feel strongly about working for social and environmental responsibility in the business?

KWL: I've always had a deep-seated connection to the Earth, since I grew up on a family farm in Vermont, accustomed to growing all our fruits and veggies ourselves and being around animals all the time. I chose to move from northern Vermont to New York City to pursue a fashion degree, which seems like the polar opposite.

The first companies I worked for out of school were ski and snowboard apparel companies, so I was able to connect fashion to being outdoors from the beginning of my career. I also believe that business must play a key role in narrowing the inequities in the world. It doesn't matter where you come from or who you are, all human beings deserve fair and ethical treatment. This is something I feel very personal about, that I come in to work every day for.

MA: Why is apparel such an important industry to "clean up?"

KWL: As an apparel company, it's typical to have a very big global footprint, and so we have the opportunity to make some of the most significant changes. Our products start in a field somewhere and don't end until the consumer disposes of the final product.

For example, at the "cut-sew level" of the supply chain, we focus most heavily on human rights. We have a 700-point code that we check in all of our factories, which includes social and environmental criteria. The data have also shown us another area where we have the opportunity to make a big impact is the water that comes out of the textile laundries. So at the 'fabric mill level' of the supply chain, we are working with NRDC on environmental responsibility and Textile Mills Best Practices through their Responsible Sourcing Initiative.

Next page: Why engaging employees is key to success at Gap