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Shoppers don't break sweat on ethics

The true cost of value clothing has once again been called into question this week. According to a report in The Observer this weekend, Indian children, possibly as young as nine, are working for nothing on clothing that is sold for next to nothing on the UK high street.

What makes the report so worrying is that the UK retailer and brand owner whose clothes were being produced in these sweatshops clearly had no idea that the practice was going on.

In the case of the retailer - value chain Select - it had dealt with a legitimate primary supplier called Majgenta, which had apparently sub-contracted some garment finishing to a less-than-scrupulous factory. You have to sympathise, because the retailer had carried out rigorous checks of the primary supplier and clearly had no clue that part of its manufacturing might be taking place under such horrific circumstances.

Select's response to the revelations in The Observer was honest and swift. It admitted it was shocked and contacted Majgenta for an explanation. The Indian supplier claimed that the stock seen in the newspaper's photographs was surplus product and not destined for Select stores, but said that an investigation was being carried out nonetheless.

It's a story that will no doubt bring on hot and cold sweats for other retailers and brand owners who believe their garments are being produced in an ethical manner. Checking out your primary supplier is clearly no longer good enough; the entire supply chain needs to be examined if you are to avoid having your name linked to such a scandal. And it will be the retailer or brand owner's name that is dragged through the mud - no one will remember the name of any supplier that may have acted unethically.

The news came in the same week that a consortium of UK corporations, including Marks & Spencer and Tesco, teamed up for the "We're in this Together" initiative, launching a series of green products to encourage shoppers to help fight climate change. M&S, for instance, intends to switch to lower temperature wash labels on 70% of its clothes; a move it says will save energy.

Some newspaper reports have been quick to dismiss this initiative as a PR exercise, but it's not the actions of the retailers that are worrying - whether the effort they're making is good enough or not, at least they're doing something. It's the fact that many shoppers don't seem to care about the ethical or ecological soundness of the products they buy, as long as they like them and they are cheap.

According to a poll run on the BBC's website this week, the biggest factor people take into account when buying clothes is style, which had polled 43.5% of the ongoing vote when I looked. Cost was just behind with 43%, while ethics had a measly 4%. Even 'other', whatever that might be, polled more than double the amount of votes as ethics, with 9.5%.

Of course, as with all online votes, you have to consider that it may not be wholly indicative of general public opinion. But even if it gives just a hint of what people think, it's almost as depressing as the Indian sweatshop scandal itself.

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