Many socially responsible investors don't want to put their money in companies that use child labor or exploit adult workers. One person who has dedicated decades to helping them find out which ones around the world treat their workers best is Alice Tepper Marlin.

Today, Tepper Marlin is president of Social Accountability International (SAI), a global standards-setting organization based in New York that aims to improve workplaces and communities around the world. SAI's certification standard is known as SA8000. To get the certification, factories must meet many requirements. Among them: They can't have forced labor or workers under 15 (14 in certain developing countries), must have a safe and healthy work environment, can't use corporal punishment, can't discriminate against people and the workweek they require must be 48 hours or less.

Tepper Marlin founded SAI in 1997, but her interest in social responsibility developed many years before then. After graduation from Wellesley College, Tepper Marlin worked as a journal editor in The Netherlands and after that returned to the United States and looked for a job. An economics major, she wanted a job in the emerging minority enterprise field. As a woman of 24 in the 1960s, doors didn't swing wide open. An "adored uncle,'' Fred Comins, helped her job hunt, she was hired by the then-Burnham and Company as a securities analyst (one of six women securities analysts then working on Wall Street), and did civil rights volunteer work in Harlem at night.

"I kept thinking, 'Gee if I could only harness the leverage I have as a securities analyst for social change I could make a much bigger difference.' And so that is what I set out to do,'' she says with a smile. She managed a pension fund portfolio for a Brookline, Mass., synagogue that didn't want its money invested in any company that supported the war in Vietnam, and then developed that concept into a peace portfolio, which inspired more clients and 700 or so letters from interested parties.
"We wanted then to do what are now socially screened funds, using civil rights and environmental issues, as well,'' she recalls. It was 1968; her employers were "happy to let me manage a portfolio that way and they encouraged me to do the research on my own.'' Tepper Marlin went to Washington to research her portfolio project, but was unable to locate critical information. She tried to convince various Wall Street firms to finance her setting up a department to do social research, but that didn't fly. "They weren't convinced there was a market for this kind of social research work. Plus I was 24 years old and a woman. So, I discovered the nonprofit sector.''

Tepper Marlin set up a project at the National Council of Churches, incorporated it as a charitable institution and started raising money through grants from the Rockefeller Family Fund, the Ottinger Family Foundations and others. The next year, she founded the Council on Economic Priorities, ran it for 30 years and then founded SAI in 1997.

Tepper Marlin says much of SAI's work now is in training managers, labor inspectors and workers to meet workplace standards. SAI recently launched its comprehensive Social Fingerprint program, which "leverages SAI's experience from the SA8000 standard to help companies implement management systems in a credible, pragmatic and cost-effective way,'' Tepper Marlin says.

And through two large-scale projects supported by the German Technical Cooperation and the UK Development Agency, SAI will carry out training and capacity building at more than 150 factories in India, and train 80 plus local trainers to help to sustain the project after its completion. Audits will be made before and after training to gauge improvements in the workplace. Central America projects, funded by, among others, the U.S. Department of Labor, include training programs on banana and sugar cane farms. Gap Inc., Timberland, Chiquita and Europe's Business Social Compliance Initiative are partners in these projects.

"The SA8000 certified factories have more than 1.3 million workers, and a few hundred more factories are qualifying each year. SA8000 is really very widely respected--based on its credibility as a robust and stringent standard--and is well known in international business circles and among NGOs and unions,'' Tepper Marlin says.

She adds that companies who have met the SA8000 standard have seen bottom-line benefits, such as improved sales, employee satisfaction, strong community relations and recognized industry reputation. The companies include global corporate giants such as Chiquita, Tata Steel and TNT N.V., the express and mail delivery services company based in The Netherlands. Medium-sized companies such as Beraca of Brazil, Rosy Blue Diamond of Thailand, Sabaf of Italy, TDE of Bolivia, TNT Express of Argentina, and Yesim of Turkey also are participants in the SA8000 certification program. TNT Argentina, Rosy Blue Diamond and TDE are subsidiaries of larger global companies. Companies meeting that have been certified are in diverse industries that include apparel, appliance controls, chemicals, electrical transmission, jewelry and transportation.