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Primark pays price for ethical blunder

I’m guessing you may be feeling an unusual happiness at not being Primark this week.

The low-price fashion chain has been a source of envy for months as its healthy sales figures defy a nasty consumer slowdown. But there is no doubt that Panorama’s well-researched and thoughtful documentary on child labour, poor pay and ungoverned home-working in Primark’s supply chain hit a sore point for many retailers.

Nearly 20% of the viewing public, 4.2 million people, tuned in to watch the BBC documentary on Monday and there is no doubt it will impact on Primark’s image.

A member of the Ethical Trading Initiative with a suppliers’ charter and auditing programme, Primark appeared to tick all the boxes on preventing poor practice. But it was clear that such policies were nowhere near sufficient to prevent abuse. Primark swiftly cut off three offending suppliers and is also liaising with an Indian charity that will monitor areas where its suppliers are based for signs that goods are being made outside the factories.

But beside the debate over whether cutting off suppliers really resolves the issue, I wonder how Primark’s buyers were unable to guess that the price they were paying for hand-beaded and sequined tops was too good to be true?

Having an ethical policy and corporate social responsibility team is no longer enough. Some social auditing firms say more than 50% of suppliers in China, for example, try to mislead them. Software packages have been developed solely for double book-keeping for that purpose. Retailers who care about the conditions in which their clothing is made should weave that social conscience into the fabric of their business.

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