If your suppliers use suppliers who run sweatshops, does that make you unethical?

This recent Channel 4 investigation shows once again how the UK is by no means exempt from sweatshop working conditions.

This is not entirely new information. Given we pretty much invented the textile sweatshop in the 18th/19th centuries. And also given well-documented evidence in books such as Chinese Whispers, which was published a couple of years ago.

Last year Primark have were revealed to have suppliers in Manchester in breach of the law.

These stories show just how easy it is for journalists to find examples of poor working conditions all over the world.

All you have to do is poke around a bit, and you can find dodgy labour conditions in almost any country.

The media are happy to feed on each others headlines and stories for a bit of brand-bashing copy that’s cheap to write.

In this case the Sun newspaper ran a headline screaming about slave labour, the BBC covered the story, as did the Guardian and many other outlets, such as the Daily Mail.

So, If your suppliers use suppliers who run sweatshops, does that make you unethical?

Not if you are making a concerted and systematic effort to prevent suppliers from doing so. What that effort looks like of course, is open to different interpretations.

Engaged membership of the Ethical Trading Initiative is a good start.

Then, it’s onto talking to the international trade unions, such as the ITGLWF or the IUF about how they can help.

Given the inevitable eventual re-balancing (to a degree) of labour costs and rising energy/transport costs, we can expect many more of these kinds of UK factory condition stories in years to come.

The media loves a domestic sweatshop tale in these troubled economic times.

(FYI: The Observer today ran an article that shows how the child labour debate is maturing somewhat. At least in how the Guardian covers such stories, sometimes. It will be a long time before the tabloids grasp the intricacies of the supply chain)


  1. I always find it hard to understand what exactally are the points you want to make, Toby.

    Why should parents be responsible for the things their underaged youngsters are doing and why shouldn't grown-up companies not be responsible for what their suppliers are doing?

  2. Hi de verbaasde kabouter, thanks for your comment.

    I agree this was not the clearest post I have ever written. My blog does have something of a disclaimer on it!

    My point is twofold:

    1) Stories around labour conditions in the UK and Europe will only grow

    2) You can't stop suppliers outsourcing and not adhering to codes all the time. You can only make a good effort. If you do that, you are not unethical, even if poor conditions are found in the supply chain.

    I accept of course, that ethics are relative and subjective.


  3. I agree on 'Stories around labour conditions in the UK and Europe will only grow'.

    Ethics might be relative/subjective throughout the world. But within Western-Europe I think there's a consensus.

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