Monday, 25 July 2011

Watching The Watchmen

It's all well and good to make the claim that your ethical clothing chain is supplied under carefully monitored conditions. But how can you, and more importantly your customers, be sure that those suppliers are doing everything they claim for the safety and well-being of their employees?

Rachel Wilshaw of Oxfam, writing in The Guardian, has highlighted the problems of unscrupulous suppliers gaming their ethical audits. We're not just talking double-entry book-keeping. There have been examples of underground factories, staffed by an entirely different (and significantly underpaid) workforce, or of underage workers hustled out of the back door as the auditors come in the front.

As more and more big companies insist on trumpeting their ethical credentials, the chances for corruption, or for a slapdash and lazy approach to compliance become greater. Auditors spend little time at the factories or farms, and an intimidated workforce is unlikely to speak out about unfair practices. Box-ticking and finger-wagging simply won't cut it. There needs to be a better way.

A smarter approach, surely, would be for companies to work more closely with both the management and workers in their supply chain. Investment in more transparent management systems. Encouraging workers to bargain collectively for better pay and conditions. Offer the carrot of bigger contracts if a supplier can clearly demonstrate that they're working to code.

Could an approach like that work? Well, global market leaders like Nike and Gap seem to think so. Companies with an established history of ethical trade programmes have found that this grown-up approach delivers real and beneficial results for everyone up and down the supply chain. Yet another example of how a clear, straightforward and ethical standpoint doesn't just make sense morally. It's good for business, too.

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