The moral gap

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Ethical sourcing has hit the headlines again this week with news of forced child labour being used in the manufacture of a particular item of children’s clothing for US based fashion retailer, Gap. A subcontractor to a supplier of Gap in India is at the centre of the controversy which was revealed by an Observer investigation.

According to The International Labour Organisation, there are 122 million economically active five to 14 year-olds in the Asia-Pacific area, with 44 million in India. But despite India introducing legislation back in 1986 to ban child labour in certain ‘hazardous’ industries, an outright ban on the use of child labour is still absent.

Gap is obviously embarrassed by the revelation, having in recent years gone to some lengths to protect its brand image by introducing a programme aimed at monitoring its suppliers compliance to its Code of Vendor Conduct. And indeed, in 2006 the company ceased business with 23 factories due to code violations.

But despite these efforts, the problem seems persistent, difficult to police and very damaging to the brand. How can leading retailers, particularly in the apparel sector, work to prevent such exploitation and abuse of children? Indian government action is clearly lacking – 20 per cent of the country’s GDP is said by the UN to be attributable to child labour. But if India wishes to grow as a destination for outsourced manufacturing and a location for global sourcing, attention needs to be paid to this important issue.

Western retailers too, need to make a more concerted effort to work together in order to highlight manufacturers/suppliers that are lax on ethical issues.

But there is also a question relating to value here. The pursuit of ‘lowest cost’ sourcing may deliver high margins to retailers in the west, however, at what cost to the brand? Perhaps, relieving the cost pressure on more reliable, ethically conscious, suppliers may help.

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