October 4, 2005

The difficult dilemma of the would-be ethical consumer

Knowledge is a terrible thing.

Six months ago, I could still shop in blissful ignorance of working conditions in the Far East. I was far more concerned about going ten minutes over my own 37 hour week, than considerate of the fact that somewhere in China, 15 year old kids are working twice that for £40 a month. Now I’ve seen and read too much, and it’s so hard to shop.

But what can you do? You need clothes and shoes. There is a very limited range of stuff marketed deliberately at people who want to shop ethically. There’s a good directory of ethical businesses here, but of course it doesn’t tell you which of the high street retailers have good social compliance programmes. That’s because so few of them do; but it would be nice to know which ones they were, so that I wasn’t stuck with a choice between tie-dyed sarongs, hemp hoodies, and bags made out of recycled inner tubes. Bags made from inner tubes are very ugly.

Another option would be to become more self-sufficient, make things myself; but although I admire Pix’s adventures in knitting, I’m simply not very good with my hands. I am also slightly stupid when it comes to purchasing raw materials – where do I start? And how do I know that the fabrics were manufactured ethically, anyway?

And what if, by making my own clothes, I am in a small way doing some Chinese child out of a job? You see, making things better is a very big, daunting task.

So, assuming we can’t make our own, and we don’t want to wear organic clothing with unfinished edges, how do we know which high street retailers are good? It’s impossible. Obviously you can look at their website, and if you’re persistent then you might find something like the social compliance statement made by the Arcadia Group, which owns Dorothy Perkins, Burtons etc. If you get the Flash site, go to About Us and click on Ethical Policy. This will show you their code of conduct, which is fairly standard, roughly based on SA8000; but scroll to the end and check out the bit about Monitoring & Inspection: it doesn’t say anything about enforcement, does it?

In a desparate attempt to feel better about buying so many pairs of shoes, I emailed Faith to find out what their attitude was. They replied that they had an internal monitoring programme. This generally means that they tell the factories that they have to be nice, and leave it at that; what it most certainly does NOT mean, is that they make regular checks and drop the factories who systematically violate human rights. No, because those are the cheapest ones.

So should I only shop at stores that belong to my own clients? Because frankly, they’re just as bad. I have one client who dropped their entire compliance programme, because the audit results were so horrific. I won’t be shopping there. I have other clients who are impressively committed, but it’s like painting the Forth Bridge, really it is. They try, but there are so many factories, and the ones who get the highest grades are probably the ones most skilled at bamboozling auditors.

The best option seems to be to support the shops who try, and avoid the ones who transparently only do this to prevent a Nike-style PR disaster. Of course, I can’t ever tell you which is which, because I would lose my own job. Google is your friend.

Finally, you may be interested to learn that there are 720 factories worldwide that are certified to SA8000. Here is a map showing you where they are.


32 thoughts on “The difficult dilemma of the would-be ethical consumer

  1. I wear clothes made from discarded packaging. Today I’m wearing a three piece suit tailored from a crumpet wrapper.
    It’s hard to maintain my reputation for sartorial elegance, but at least it’s ethical.

  2. Huh. I bet it was stitched by pixies who were chained to their sewing machines and paid in beetles.

    Karen on October 4, 2005
  3. To protect our readers from jokes that may be a threat to their health, I have been forced to implement a Sevitz filter. It should be obvious how it works.
    (If you’re wondering what I’m on about, try clearing your cache to refresh the stylesheet).

    Pete on October 4, 2005
  4. You can still see them on the main page. You’ll just have to keep your “jokes” under 60 characters long.

    Karen on October 4, 2005
  5. I can’t see them on the main page – it seems I’m fully protected from the dangers of Adrian’s jokes.
    I just wonder how I’m getting away with it…

  6. That one crossed in the post.
    If you are really really sure that you want to read what Adrian has written, press Ctrl+A. The ‘A’ stands for “Adrian doesn’t upset me that much.”

    Pete on October 4, 2005
  7. You should market that – a sevitz filter “Every blog needs one!”
    (Ach I’m only kidding!)
    As for ethical clothing – I think it’s a good thing to at least know how it’s being made (fairly or not). And then take it from there.
    I’m hoping my 3 for

  8. Ah, I always thought Ctrl+A was just to select all. I now know it also toggles Adrian on and off. Sorry Adrian – I’ve been using it quite a lot.

  9. In case you’re willing to see a sevitzism but you’ve got a mac, that’s apple+A for you!

  10. It’s dubious, Gordon. Asda is part of the Wal*Mart family, and Wal*Mart has a very active CSR programme. But whether or not that’s more of a PR initiative than an expression of their social conscience, is difficult to say. I can judge my own clients’ attitudes fairly well, but I don’t personally have any dealings with Wal*Mart, and I’m not aware of their UK division’s programme, if any. A very quick google didn’t turn anything up.
    Asda itself does have a long history of contributing to the local community, Children In Need, etc; for them, I think that charity begins at home.
    Until the needs of ecosystems and the living things that constitute them are considered to be more important than the need of a corporation to generate profits, CSR will continue to be meaningless.

    Karen on October 4, 2005
  11. I should like to paraphrase that.
    Until anything is considered and shown on a financial scale to be more important than the needs of a corporation, those corporations will not change.

  12. I can paraphrase further.
    Until the badgers rise up with their fifty-foot flaming forks of fear and start punishing those who have destroyed the environment for so many years, by a long, slow, public anal fork torture, one by one, with all humankind forced to watch this ordeal on screen in the realisation that they could be next, those corporations will not change.

    Pete on October 4, 2005
  13. Although this comment will be invisible …
    I sort of agree with Stuart. But I do think there is a trend amongst new and young companies that does involve social conscious. Googles “Do No Evil” is a good example. The Gates foundation is a multi-billion dollar charity, based on MS shares. And many new and young companies (or companies with predominantly young staff) do want change for the sake of good alone.
    My company for example has started doing many things like recycling, and improving our treatment of the environment internally. Not because we have to, or because there is a financial benefit (there often isn’t) but because it’s a good thing. There are other non environmental examples, but I can’t think of them off hand. (Oh yeah, we get days off to go help a charity on the firm was another example)
    It’s also interesting to note than when recruiting (especially graduates), they are grilling us on our social activities and what we are doing to help improve the world. Now this obviously isn’t going to count as much as say salary, but the fact we are being grilled on these issues shows change.
    And the more that change starts, the more it feeds itself. If we start getting more or better recruits because we have better social and ethical programs than our competitors it will force them to change too.
    So whilst I agree with Stuart, that most companies wont change till they have to, I think that some are starting to because its a good thing. And those that do it because it’s a good thing, will eventually land up forcing those that don’t to change because they now have to.
    In my very humble but invisible opinion.

  14. Buying clothing is a problem here as well. I do know of certain chains in the Netherlands which produce clothing under hideous conditions in Bangladesh. We do not shop at these establishments.
    The thing that is really upsetting is that- if you take a simple article, like a polo shirt- there is very little difference in the end costs of a shirt from the lowest quality fabric or the best available. We are talking cents. Imagine that.
    People buy labels, advertising campaigns, images. In the end, clothing is like a cheese sandwich : there is only so much that you can do to it, it is still a cheese sandwich.
    Many companies here make suppliers sign a statement that their producers meet a certain minimum in worker and environmental safety. But there is little control. Some, but not much.

  15. Sue – certainly I’ve noticed that European retailers are much more interested in the behaviour of their own suppliers, than British retailers. It goes without saying that the litigation-obsessed American retailers virtually invented CSR.
    Certainly I have as many Dutch clients as British.

    Karen on October 4, 2005
  16. I was more interested to note that of the 780 SA8000 approved factories globally, only 3 are in the UK compared to nearly 200 in China. Does that mean that working standards and respect for workers rights in factories in the UK are non existent apart from in 3 factories? Do we still have sweatshops and underage workforces here and are we more guilty of factory worker rights abuses than many third world countries?
    Couple to this the fact that you have to take on faith what some companies tell you (the consumer). For example, Gap inc., who were accused of having most of their clothes made in sweatshops, have gone to great lengths to try to correct this judging from the information on their website. But still some people hold it against them and take what they say “with a pinch of salt”. But unless you go to every one of the 3000 factories Gap uses and check out the conditions for yourself, how are you to know if they are true to their word about only using socially responsible factories?

  17. Adrian – you’ve captured my thoughts perfectly (seriously, I did mouseover and read your comment, I’m not saying my mind is a blank! ohh arse…)

  18. Stalker – this is because working conditions are more of an issue in the developing world, so there is more pressure on factories there to get SA8000 to demonstrate that they are better than most.
    In the UK there are some human rights abuses, but they are pale in comparison with the horrors that go on in the Far East; or they are isolated cases – such as the Chinese cockle pickers in Morecambe Bay. One area of particular risk that has been identified is in the agricultural sector, where gangmasters and illegal immigrants are often involved.
    As you say, GAP have gone to great lengths to prove themselves compliant, and the whole purpose of a social compliance programme is ostensibly so that the consumer can trust that the goods on sale were produced ethically. But you have summed up my point – how can you tell whether they’re doing this as a defence against bad PR, or whether they genuinely want to contribute to an overall improvement in conditions?
    No retailer only uses socially responsible factories, because there simply aren’t enough factories that can be called that. But if retailers get involved with their supply chain and encourage and support the improvement process, then those are the ones that we as consumers should be supporting in turn.

    Karen on October 5, 2005
  19. As a matter of interest, BMW SA only will work with suppliers that are 14001 compliant. And because it’s lucrative working with BMW (financially) many businesses (both small and big) who want to be suppliers are now getting compliant.
    I don’t think big change can be made by one company, but the more that start doing it, no matter weather it is a defence against PR or a genuine interest in doing the right things, the more change that will happen. And the more change that happens, the more attitudes will change and the more likely it is that we will become a society where not doing it will be considered enitrely unacceptable.
    This is why it’s no longer acceptable to treat workers in the 1st world like this. Because we changed. The next step is to realise we cant treat anyone like this and force those people we buy from in the 3rd world to change how they treat there staff. If we can do it in the first world (mainly) we can do it in the third world.

  20. Adrian, what you have invisibly said is right, and that was certainly my experience when working in the automotive industry – as a chemical supplier, we couldn’t get on anyone’s approved supplier list without ISO 14001. Once we had it, we could suddenly supply Rolls Royce, Vauxhall, Ford etc.
    The idea of both these systems is that they cascade down their supply chain. So if BMW wants to keep their certification, then they have to support their suppliers in getting it; it’s slow progress, but it’s not impossible. Perhaps one day it will be unthinkable to purchase clothes that were made in below-standard working conditions.

    Karen on October 5, 2005
  21. Karen, I’d like to think so. I also think the fact we are buying all these products from China (and co) will in turn push money into China (& Co) which will start creating wealth in China (&Co).
    The more wealth there is in China, the more free enterprise (I hope) will improve which in turn will drive innovation and industry. Western Europe and America wasn’t that different 100/200 years ago. Hopefully by creating wealth in China this will change the market where people are unwilling to work as virtual slaves because they have options. You can see this happening in South Africa. This takes a long time, but hopefully the fact we have been there before and hopefully we have learned enough to accelerate this process for others.
    Who knows, what technical geniuses of the future are currently sitting make shoes and what not, and who know what potential could be realised if we started making people treat people as people. The Chinese were vastly superior to technologically before we were (2000 years ago or so), so hopefully they can give us a run for our money again.

  22. 27 hours to figure out how to get round the Sevitz filter ain’t bad. You can be proud of yourself.

    Pete on October 5, 2005
  23. 2 minutes to figure it out. 27 hours to attempt it. I was hoping that you would feel bad for picking on me before that.

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