Monday 7 January 2008

Ethics and the supply chain

In a recent entry we highlighted the existence of child labour in cotton production in Uzbekistan. We would want to have nothing to do with garments manufactured from this cotton and fortunately because our supply chain is often relatively short, we can look through our suppliers to their sources.

In other cases we may source big brand clothing through an intermediary. Here we have to rely on the ethical statements issued by those companies to make a judgement on what we are dealing with.

But are ethical statements worth the paper that they are written on? To some extent large companies like Adidas, Hanes and Fruit of the Loom can be expected to behave in line with their ethical policies purely because of the microscope that big brands come under. That microscope means that some unpleasant exceptions emerge; we have to accept that - without the exceptions there might be no microscope and complacency would reign.

We found an interesting paper by Alan Night, Head of Social Responsibility for Kingfisher PLC here in the UK. It serves to highlight the complexities of ensuring that a supply chain is ethical for a group selling thousands of products some of which are made from parts sourced from tens of manufactures. Of course it's not possible to make sure that all is ethical - in an example that he talks of lampshade made from translucent sea shells sourced in the Phillipines. Here Kingfisher got themselves involved with the original shell farmers to help ensure a fair deal but you have to know that this is a tiny fragment of all the disparate elements that go to supply B&Q and Woolworths and other big name stores. The shells are even just a small part of that lampshade. While the help to the shell farmers is inevitably a little bit of a stunt one has to feel some sympathy with the dilemma of an organisation selling such a wide range of products.

We are perhaps fortunate that we are at the end of the cotton clothing supply chain, particularly because of the big name fashion participants, this is one that gets press coverage to keep its participants on their toes. When one looks at Woolworths Pick and Mix stand in comparison, just what are the chances of there being rogue elements of exploitation amidst all those sweet treats?

The supply chain may be smaller but we are not complacent. When a supplier sports an accreditation from an independent organisation vouching for ethical sourcing we know that there are questions to be asked:

  • Is that independent organisation truly independent?
  • In a world of bogus university degrees, is it real?
  • How often are inspections made?
  • Does a supplier's name appear on that organisation's website as a company that is audited?
One of the biggest names in the ethical and fair trade field is the Fairtrade Foundation. What does that Fairtrade logo mean? Well, it may be put on a composite product if more than 50% of its ingredients, by dry weight, are sourced from Fairtrade certified producer organizations. So what of the remaining 49%?

And does a Fairtrade logo mean that the employees in a organisation have been fairly treated? Probably, but not necessarily: Fairtrade explains that "Ethical trading means companies are involved in a process of trying to ensure that the basic labour rights of the employees of their third world suppliers are respected. The FAIRTRADE Mark, which applies to products rather than companies, aims to give disadvantaged small producers more control over their own lives. It addresses the injustice of low prices by guaranteeing that producers receive fair terms of trade and fair prices".

It's a fact of life that things are never going to be perfect. Both Fairtrade and Woolworths have to be prepared to compromise. We can reasonably conclude that a store selling only Fairtrade products is probably a more reliable place to shop ethically than Woolworths. But then what if their staff have lower pay and worse conditions than Woolworths staff?

We all have to make judgements. There are often few facts, there may be claims and assurances, there are surrounding circumstances.

In the scheme of things we are a relatively small fish in a big global textile sea. We cannot afford to visit factories to check on suppliers' claims ourselves but we use our common sense to sift out the garments that have the best claims to a full ethical supply chain. When it comes to brands, we know that the catalogue of our largest wholesale supplier contains some brands where we know little about their ethical polices. We have raised this as an important issue with that supplier and until clarification is obtained we are inclined not to use those brands in printing our t-shirts.

What of our smaller suppliers? Sometimes, when we buy direct from a manufacturer (as in the case of Continental or Starworld) their t-shirts are made from cotton that they have purchased themselves. Here we are able to talk directly to the manufacturer. We may look at other circumstances, look at certificates obtained from organisations such as Fair Wear Foundation. If we know that a garment is truly organic because of Soil Association certification, or meets the Oeko-Tex Standards then these environmental certifications adds a little to a picture.

What our customers can do is talk to us about what is important to them. We can at least give them a choice and certainly we can do out utmost to match customers to suppliers that meet their ethical and other demands.

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