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Ethics and Commercialism: Conflicting Agendas?

Thursday 31-01-2013 - 00:00

Despite the apparent ‘mainstreaming of sustainability’, there often remains a gulf between the individuals fighting for ethical and environmental excellence and those striving for commercial success.

Sophie Sharp, ethical supply chain co-ordinator, NUS Services

It’s a gap which appears in many fields, from the objectives of a commercially minded shop manager versus the goal of a campaigning consumer, through to the business managers striving to keep costs down versus the stakeholders calling for ethical best practice.
With frequently different priorities, it seems unlikely that the two worlds of ethics and commercialism will ever be able to co-exist happily, let alone come to complement each other.

Yet, environmentally speaking, it’s now pretty well understood that ‘doing the right thing’ will save you money; commercialism and environmental responsibility can actually be one and the same. That certainly wasn’t always the case. However, it’s not quite so simple when we look at issues like labour standards and fair wages.

The reality is that ‘buying ethically’ can still mean paying more. This makes sense if we actually question how producing, spinning, dying, cutting and sewing the fabric required to produce a pair of jeans (not to mention their shipping, the employment of the staff stocking the shelves and managing the till, the payment of taxes, etc.) could cost a consumer a mere £4. Surely someone must be losing out somewhere in that chain? Even commercially, surely you’d need to be selling quite a few pairs of those jeans to be turning a profit? And yet that has been the reality of high-street fashion for quite some time, with many retailers believing that this was what was needed to be competitive. 

Are consumers prepared to pay?

While ethically minded consumers accept that buying ethically will sometimes mean paying a little bit more for goods, it’s often still not a premium that the average consumer is prepared to pay. It helps when we can see where that extra money is going, which is probably in part why the Fairtrade Foundation has seen such growth in recent years.

However, even Fairtrade only goes so far. Currently, for example, Fairtrade clothing guarantees little in terms of the wages paid to workers stitching the garment. To ensure that all elements of the supply chain are looked after means going that bit further and, quite possibly, paying a little bit more again. But if we know that it’s helping make sure someone is able to feed their family properly, it’s hard to argue with.

There are of course also some instances where taking action to respond to ethical or environmental concerns as a retail outlet will mean taking a commercial hit. And most challenging is the reality that in some cases the most ethical option is to buy nothing at all. That’s going to be a hard sell for any retailer. This is where thinking differently is essential. In today’s austere times, buying nothing is a decision made by many consumers for financial as well as ethical reasons, so it’s a reality that needs to be faced.

The savvy retailer therefore needs to be thinking differently, diversifying products or perhaps even, as is the case with the brand Patagonia, finding a way to make discouraging the purchase of your products part of a successful business model. The challenge is finding other income streams to minimise the impact.

Bridge the gap

Some students’ unions have shown the possibilities, losing one revenue stream by choosing not to stock a certain product while finding different products that complement ethical behaviour to fill the gap. Consumer behaviour is shifting, and it’s the organisations that understand that this creates new opportunities that will come out in front.

What though of the argument that the funds generated through the sales of the most popular products and brands (yes, even the products that sit a little less comfortably with the ethical campaigner) are critical if an organisation like the NUS is to have the revenue to deliver some of the ground-breaking ethical and environmental work that we do? As an organisation, we strive to be at the forefront of ethical supply chain work (not least because we have a student body that demands it) and the income generated through the purchasing consortium is a large part of what makes that possible.

We don’t want to compromise our fundamental ethical beliefs and we want to continue to work hard to improve the behaviour of our suppliers. We therefore need to bridge the gap between ethical and commercial priorities and start seeing the opportunities, not the threats, so that we can continue to lead the way.

Working with suppliers gives us a great opportunity to improve poor behaviour and develop innovative solutions to some of the bigger challenges, like ensuring that the person stitching our hoodies is paid a decent wage. Equally, student officers and shop managers need to work together to understand each other’s priorities and find innovative solutions to maximise the opportunities ethical retailing creates. It may not be easy, but we’ll only ever achieve half of what is possible if we only understand one side of the ethical/commercial coin.

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