The move to outward processing by western textile and clothing companies over the past two decades continues to call into question the ethical correctness of some of the factory systems in place in some poorer parts of the world.
Protests in both EU countries and America have highlighted the working practices of some international brand names, and the accusations of worker exploitation - even slave labour - appear to persist.
The Prince of Wales International Business Leaders Forum (IBLF) has been involved in several programmes regarding Ethical Procurement and Supply Chains, including the Bangladesh garments and textile industry, the Vietnamese footwear industry, and the Indonesian leather industry (director-e News, Tuesday 15 January).
"Alongside an increased awareness of the contribution that the business community can make to economic and human development has been a questioning of the ways in which business operates and delivers its social responsibility agenda", says the IBLF.
The end of the Cold War and the spread of the market economy, the changing roles of government and business, increased expectations of consumers and interest groups, the growth of civil society and the information society, the challenges of social seclusion and human security and globalisation of trade, capital and investment, have impacted on all industries with a need for action.
The IBLF argues that the value of a product should not be measured by its price alone. Whilst price remains a key factor in the valuing of products, there is a growing awareness amongst the buying public of the importance of the conditions under which the products are manufactured and the impact on the communities from which they are sourced.
Ethical procurement and acceptable labour standards are now key areas of concern. However, the complexities of modern supply chains where elements of the work are contracted and sub-contracted out - often off shore to developing countries - make it difficult, nigh on impossible, to control and monitor every step in the chain of production and to have clarity on the responsibility for ensuring acceptable standards.
Pressure to meet tight delivery deadlines combined with poor human resource management skills often leads to inefficient practices resulting in long working hours or enforced overtime, unhealthy and unsafe working conditions and potentially abusive treatment towards workers.
The IBLF acknowledges that brand owners are now striving to improve the control of their supply chains and to implement and adhere to clear codes of good practice, including freedom of association and non-discrimination.
The issues being addressed include improvement in environmental practice and the maintenance of records, working children, employment of women, less than minimum wages, long working hours and poor occupational health and safety awareness.
Codes of conduct
Codes of conduct tend to set out minimum standards and are an important part of the transparency process. They do however, have some limitations, such as the cost of implementation, they can be inconsistent or difficult to understand and implement at local level, or may not address issues in the informal sector. They can sometimes be seen as a public relations initiative rather than a real commitment to improve.
Companies need to ensure that they have a full assessment of each step in their sourcing chain. Clear communication of acceptable standards to all stakeholders is vital to the success of implementing change and in many cases a transfer of technology and training will be an essential part of the process.
When the key issues have been identified and agreed upon through multiple stakeholder consultation, including the managers and supervisors of the factories and community leaders, detailed plans for improvements and implementation can be drawn up.
The potential impact of change in ethical procurement can be enhanced through collective action. Companies who compete strongly in their sectors are coming to accept that there are issues on which they have a common interest in effecting change and that they can achieve more collectively than separately.
Sharing information in this field can have many benefits, not least the provision of new solutions and workable ideas, as core labour standards affect all companies across their supply base. Companies reviewing their procurement policies should also consider the development of coherent long-term improvements and sustainability for their products, their workers and the communities within which the products are manufactured.
Instrument for change
The Prince of Wales International Business Leaders Forum (IBLF) is a crucial instrument for change in the world of clothing manufacturing - and in fact other industries in which it is working to promote ethical soucing and supply chains.
The IBLF is an international non-governmental organisation founded by HRH The Prince of Wales in 1990, supported by 60 multi-national companies. The mission is to promote responsible business practices that benefit both business and society and which help to achieve social, economic and environmentally sustainable development.
For further information regarding the above programmes, or any of the work carried out by the IBLF, please see the Forum's website, www.iblf.org
This article was produced for Corporate Clothing director-e by The Prince of Wales International Business Leaders Forum and is the intellectual property of the IBLF.