Retailers’ will live and die by the ethical practices of their suppliers

The quest for profit is the lifeblood of global commerce. Retailers, like any organisation, are hungry, short-term cash seekers who must pay their costs, reward shareholders and fund the next marketing campaign to acquire more customers.

What’s left over – profit, long term and short term – is the single true marker of corporate success, and as we know, retailers and suppliers are equally guilty of doing almost anything to get it – even if that means turning a blind eye to corruption and inhumane recruitment practices going on somewhere in their supply chain.

Earlier this year, Beyoncé and Topshop were under fire for the popstar's latest clothing range for the store, Ivy Park, that had apparently been ‘Made in Sweatshops’. It was found that workers in the Sri Lankan factory were working 60 hours a week for the equivalent of £4.30 a day – which is rather astonishing considering the fortune of both Beyoncé and Topshop, and the price the clothes retail at.

It’s interesting to consider and question whether Beyoncé and Topshop made the effort to ask and check the supplier which they hired, on how much employees were being paid, or what conditions they had to work in to produce the clothes for the store.  On the other hand, it’s likely that this could have been due to supplier dishonesty. Either way, it evidently shows that a level of supply chain transparency is missing, especially at the initial stage.

It seems as though the majority of large retailers believe that the task of properly monitoring their suppliers and the conditions in which the employees work is impossible – or more often than not, too much hassle. But in a time where workers of brands like H&M are still being grossly mistreated, auditors are corrupt, and tragedies and scandals are a common occurrence, it’s clear that retailers can no longer just fire-fight the issues when they are exposed to the public. With so much competition in the fast fashion market, brand reputation is too vulnerable to withstand supply chain scandals. Especially when they can be avoided by pinpointing risks.

Many existing assessments and audit tools create an environment of fear, and the validity of the data is questionable. Now is the time for organisations to engage the biggest part of the solution: their workers.

By developing a dialogue with workers, organisations can create a new level of transparency throughout an entire supply chain. By allowing workers the opportunity to share their thoughts and observations, organisations can unlock invaluable insight into the practices and processes within their supply chain from a perspective which has until now never been fully explored. The RTW Assessment can enable you to achieve this level of top-to-bottom transparency that is now not only desired, it is required as part of the Modern Slavery Act.

It’s no longer acceptable for retailers to regard workers at the other end of their supply chain as not part of their business. As many big brands are fast realising, it is both a moral and business imperative to make sure that both their entire workforce and financial growth are protected.

Nor should consumers - who one can argue are at the very head of the supply chain creating the demand for fast fashion - turn a blind eye to the mistreatment of those whose hands actually make their clothes. Next month, we’ll be taking stock of the relationship between consumers, brands and the supply chain today in 2016, and envisioning where it is headed in the future. Sign up to our newsletter to be kept informed.