In today’s conscience-driven markets, socially responsible sourcing in the footwear industry is a necessity, not an option. With many corporations having rebranded their core values in the light of ethical business considerations, public interest is pushing the footwear industry into formulating codes of conduct and factory audit programmes. This translates into increased pressure on suppliers and retailers alike. While the Far East is usually singled out for criticism (much of it unfair), this applies equally to Europe, South America and Africa.
The key to change is the customer/supplier relationship, with the emphasis on customers driving changes to improve workers’ lives. Tim Cotton of consultancy Ethical Sourcing Solutions says these policies should include: supplier and product selection not based solely on price; continuously improving service standards that go beyond delivery and quality; and product traceability down to factory/site. Other working practices may need to change. For example, organising more delivery drops into retailers to avoid concentrated seasonal deliveries, and making factory overtime voluntary. By helping factories run more efficiently, customers enable producers to give workers the chance to earn more money.
Most footwear retailers and importers now devote much time and resource addressing the issue of ethical sourcing. Many are ahead of public opinion and the generally accepted levels of ‘best practice’. The trick is to balance desirable aims against the demands of the consumer for inexpensive and well-made shoes.
This becomes more complex as the search for the next best footwear-producing country intensifies. A key part of the decision has to be responsible business practice.
Richard Kottler is chief executive of the British Footwear Association