Ethical buyers step up

An experienced social auditor in many countries, Muriel Johnson leads regular training sessions run by ETI. With buyers better able to influence responsible buying practices, I talked to her about recent trends and the part now played by buyers in ethical trade.

What’s been the dominant trend in ethical trade over the last couple of years?

Simply that companies having a robust ethical trade programme has become ‘business as normal’. Consumers expect increasingly high standards of ethical practice from brands and retailers and feel let down when companies don’t deliver – just look at the criticism Philip Green has faced lately. Ethical trade is getting far better integrated into core business practice as a result. Business now accepts that to operate responsibly, ethical trade teams can’t be an island – you need the other functions around them to be on board and contribute too.

Meanwhile the Modern Slavery Act has helped bring labour rights into renewed focus. Now that companies are required to report publicly on what they’re doing to prevent modern slavery in their supply chains, they’re responding to this new scrutiny. They realise there are no short cuts to getting robust due diligence in place. If their Modern Slavery Statement looks thin, their whole approach to ethical trade comes over as wanting.

How’s the relationship between suppliers and retailers?

W­e’ve seen a big shift in the space that suppliers occupy. There’s now much more visibility of supply chains, so that ethical trade has become less of a process ‘done to’ suppliers, and more something ‘done with’ them in partnership.  With suppliers becoming more identifiable, they’re gaining more of a voice and they’re increasingly using it. Where suppliers once hid issues, those with longer term relations with their customers feel increasingly able to open up. They now challenge their customers on the part their practices can play in preventing improvement to working conditions and are much more likely to be proactive and ask for support in making changes.

Sure, the balance of power still remains in the hands of merchants – of course they’re under pressure if sales don’t perform – but they know that squeezing too hard on suppliers won’t make their order book sustainable either. The more progressive retailers want partnerships that work well for both sides and enable innovation. There’s still a long way to go, but we’re certainly seeing more examples where suppliers and customers are working effectively in partnership and it’s a welcome change.

And how is the buyer role evolving?

Technology, public interest and the media have all made us more connected to sourcing operations – to the people producing the goods in our supply chains. And where once that human connection was shunted aside, now it’s embraced more readily by companies as a force for positive change. At the same time, brands have stopped demanding ethical sourcing from buyers, while only rewarding them on price secured. Instead, ethical performance now has a firm place on buyers’ balanced scorecards, alongside service level, quality, speed to market and other indicators. And companies are now looking at the whole value chain to see where efficiencies could lie, rather than remaining overly-focused on the supplier.

All this adds up to buyers playing a more positive role within ethical trade than they once enjoyed. What we see from those that come on our buyers’ workshop is that they are very receptive to gaining more knowledge and insight about the realities of the supply chains they operate within. It’s both a chance for them to discuss the barriers they face and also to nudge ethical trade along in their business. It’s always a great satisfaction to see buyers recognise that what they do day-to-day can have real influence on the purchasing practices within their company and ultimately effect workers’ lives in sourcing countries.

Attend the next workshop: 'Buying ethically: a workshop for buyers


ETI's blog covers issues at the intersection of business, news and ethical trade. We welcome a range of insights and opinions from our guest bloggers, though don't necessarily agree with everything they say.