Once again ethical sourcing has hit the headlines. Primark, the much-loved destination of the budget shopper, has been busy defending its brand against accusations from the BBC and The Observer of sourcing garments from a UK based supplier that has been paying illegal immigrants less than the minimum wage.
According to the reports, TNS Knitwear has been paying illegal Afghan, Pakistani and Indian workers just £3 an hour for 12 hour days – not far off half the minimum wage of £5. Primark has been quick to point out that independent auditors visited TNS Knitwear in December and reported on several breaches of its code of conduct – apparently, action was already underway.
Primark is used to defending itself against such accusations, having faced allegations last summer from the BBC Panorama programme that a supplier to Primark in India had been subcontracting work out to children.
Such investigations by the press highlight the difficulties responsible companies face in protecting their brands against damage caused by unethical suppliers. The use of independent auditors in monitoring suppliers is essential to any organisation bent on pursuing an ethical sourcing policy. However, it is exceptionally difficult for brand owners to police their supply chains, particularly in distant locations such as India.
Despite the difficulties, this is too important an issue to ignore. Damage caused to a brand by revelations of ethical sourcing misconduct can be long and lasting, impacting consumer perception and consequently brand value and sales.
If brand owners want to protect their most valuable asset – their reputation – then ample resources need to be allocated to ensuring that regular and thorough auditing of suppliers takes place. But, importantly, work subcontracted out by suppliers also needs to be closely monitored, with suppliers being made fully aware of the consequences of subcontracting out to those who do not comply with the brand owner’s ethical code of practice.