This year, like every year, we’ve seen a number of supply chain scandals where large UK retailers have been in the spotlight for labour abuses found somewhere within their supply chain. From Nestle coffee beans being supplied by plantations using slave labour to Beyoncé’s Topshop clothing range being made by Sri Lankan workers working in ‘sweatshop’ conditions, we’ve seen countless labour abuses in almost every industry.
Retailers are predominantly in the spotlight when a scandal occurs, the sole culprit for any occurrence of labour abuses within their supply chain because they “should have known” and should have had concrete practices in place to prevent such occurrences. And we largely agree with that – retailers are aware of the complexity of modern supply chains and the wide-reaching risks that come with it. Therefore they have a large responsibility in preventing health, safety and worker rights breaches from occurring in their supply chains.
Suppliers, on the other hand, without a customer-facing brand to maintain, tend to receive less finger-pointing during supply chain scandals, even when labour abuses happen on their watch. Given the direct responsibility of certain manufacturers and factories in many of the cases brought to light, we believe that efforts to improve labour treatment should be made in equal measure by suppliers themselves.
It’s important to understand that, particularly in the food and fast fashion industries, factories are being asked to produce more for less or face being undercut by the nearest competitor. It’s not as simple as expecting suppliers to increase their prices to pay their workers or have them work fewer hours. The pressure created by retailers is a very real issue, in turn fuelled by customer demand.
Retailers who are at high risk of reputational damage from any medial scandal are going to begin looking for suppliers who are making an effort to individually ensure their practices are ethical, because reliability and trust is now sought from the start.
If a retailer had to choose between two suppliers, both with similar charges, where one of them is open about the practices within their workplace and can verify that the working conditions are fair, safe and low-risk whereas the other supplier can only offer verbal assurance – which do you think the retailer would choose?
With affordable insight tools now available, suppliers can consider taking the initiative to implement precautions and practices that will not only better improve their workplace, but reduce risk and gain trust from retailers.