A lot of time is spent pressuring brands over their supply chains (though not nearly enough).
People ought to challenge themselves about this: are you just picking on the brands that you see most often: the Apples, the Gaps and the Nikes of the world? What about, in the mundane world of groceries, the supermarkets’ store labels, such as Costco’s Kirkland or Wal-Mart’s Great Value? Ever wonder what conditions those goods are made under?
Perhaps now is a good time to start thinking about this, because store brands are on the march.
In Australia, the two largest retail conglomerates make no secret of their strategy of progressively expanding their store labels at the expense of intermediate producers. Controversially this has included an offer of $1 milk at Coles and $10 jeans at its stablemate Kmart, sourced directly from China.
This could mean greater transparency about producers’ working conditions, since the retailers are themselves responsible for the contract of supply, yet the issue is barely on the radar. When it comes to overseas-made store brand products I rarely if ever hear people voice concern for the people making the goods; the discourse is all about ‘buying local’.
Right now Australia’s Parliament is debating a Bill that would compel companies to reveal whether goods “Made in Australia” are merely canned or batched here or if they are truly made from 100% Australian produce. However the motivation behind the Competition and Consumer Amendment (Australian Food Labelling) Bill 2012 is not to encourage transparency, it’s to encourage local farmer’s markets by “shaming” companies that import food. The Bill’s drafters would prefer that food not be imported at all. Consequently, it contains no provisions for monitoring or reporting (and these people call themselves progressive!)
Store label goods are not intended to draw attention to themselves, and they normally do a good job of it. A rare exception was an IGLHR report published in March which detailed abuses at a Chinese-owned factory in Bangladesh. The researchers somehow uncovered that the factory’s sweaters were being procured by Australia’s Wesfarmers group (owner of Coles Supermarkets and Kmart Australia). It didn’t even break into the mainstream news.
So the more goods on shelves come in these nondescript black-and-white packages, the less we know about them. Unless retailers are forced to disclose the identity of their suppliers, or someone like the IGLHR goes digging for it, all that we have to go by is their CSR statements. These are generic blanket statements covering thousands, possibly tens of thousands of product lines, with no associated checking mechanism. Even with the best intentions in the world, that is a recipe for inaction.
“Trust, but verify”
Voluntary standards are not a top priority in the companies that use them, and even less so when they are invisible to the outside world. Their priority is making money. Someone else needs to check that standards are adhered to. An academic study into the banana supply chain, conducted in 2010, concluded that the competitive pressure to drive down prices is always going to take precedence. It concluded that:
The voluntary labour initiatives in the global banana industry appear to be both driven by and in the interest of business. This is particularly so when there is no mechanism for the relevant worker representatives to monitor compliance of such initiatives (Robinson, p. 562; emphasis added)
Incidentally the opposite holds true as well. In an interview with Australia’s Inside Retail the week before last, the owner of the Gideon Shoes fairtrade shoe company, Matthew Noffs, said:
We haven’t had much support from the big name chains [...] I have found the whole industry largely unsupportive (p. 4)
A lot of people like the idea of how [our product] is made but are also very scared, because as soon as you understand how things are really made and if you decide to get serious about it, it changes the way you buy (p. 5)
In other words, faced with the option of stocking a product that puts its commitment to ethical labour front and centre, retailers don’t want to touch it.
What does that tell you?
- Suppliers squeezed: Woolies accused Sydney Morning Herald, 6 July 2012 http://www.smh.com.au/business/suppliers-squeezed-woolies-accused-20120705-21k86.html
- Retailers ‘not interested’ in fairtrade Inside Retail, 14 September 2012 [hyperlink coming; not online yet]
- Robinson P K, Do Voluntary Labour Initiatives Make a Difference for the Conditions of Workers in Global Supply Chains? Journal of Industrial Relations, 52(5), November 2010, pp. 561-573
- Chinese Sweatshop in Bangladesh, Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights, http://www.globallabourrights.org/reports?id=0644 8 March 2012
- The Battle of Tomato Identities: The Rise of Supermarket Own-Label in Harvey, Quilley & Beynon (2003) Exploring the Tomato: Transformation of Nature, Society and Economy, Edward Elgar Pub., Northhampton, Mass., pp. 174-200
More related posts:
- Diffusion of Responsibility 6 January 2011
- CSR: Just a pretty picture? 17 January 2011
- Industry-led fairtrade certification … hmm 13 October 2011
- Consumer Republic [book review] 26 December 2011
- Specifically about bananas: