Put your money where your mouth is

There is no doubt that business ethics continue to be a hot topic. Check out any big business’s website and it’s a fair bet that they will have a page that announces their sustainability and ethical policies.

But what does business ethics actually mean? Technically, it is a voluntary policy that can be adopted by a company, and is a policy that has most impact on the supply chain. Practically, it means ensuring that your own workers and those of your suppliers are paid fairly, work reasonable hours and in a safe environment.

But it’s one thing to manage your own office, and quite another to keep an eye on what a company is doing over the other side of the world, which might be where your suppliers are based.

With fashion brands there has been much attention on where, how and by whom the garments are manufactured. The case of the Rana Plaza clothing factory in Bangladesh in which more than 1,100 workers were killed when the building collapsed on them brought renewed focus on the working conditions in third world factories.  The disaster, in April last year, is the subject of a BBC2 documentary this coming Monday (This World: Clothes To Die For, BBC2, 9pm), in which survivors tell their story (pictured).

The difficulty for both business-to-business and consumer-based markets is where price is the driving factor. As a B2B company we have first-hand experience of this: customers want to know that their uniforms are produced within the right working environment, using fabrics that have been created to a high ethical and quality standards. We’re mindful that even in the developing world this is becoming an issue: note the case of the Chinese school children who were excited to wear their brand new school uniforms only to discover that they were toxic, and not in a Britney Spears way.

Here’s the rub: paying workers fairly means that it’s going to cost more, because suppliers have to pass on that cost. What’s more, in order to ensure that a factory is operating ethically, you need to monitor it frequently, and that means investing time and cash in visiting your supplier.

We took the decision to manufacture in Europe 20 years ago, because of the assurances around quality. But we are under no illusions: proving a transparent audit trail when order quantities may be small and your company may not be your supplier’s largest customer is a challenge, especially for SMEs.

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