Slacker's Syllabus: Supply Chain Ethics

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2021 was a big year for the labor movement.

The lack of consideration for the labor that goes into producing common goods, like clothes and food, is a huge problem.

With items readily available to buy in stores, online, or even through apps like Instacart and GoPuff, you really don’t have to think about where it all comes from.

But last year, strikes at popular brands like Frito-Lay and Kellogg’s prompted many consumers to ask more questions about the origin stories of their purchases.

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That said, the push for transparency from businesses isn’t new.

Demands for ethical supply chains, sustainability, and transparency have been the guiding force behind a larger shift in consumer culture for years.

In 2017, the Nielsen Company found that brands with a demonstrable commitment to sustainability outperform others — and over 70% of millennial respondents also said they’d pay more for a sustainable product.

Despite the fact that millennials are coming of age in one of the most difficult economic climates in the past 100 years, they continue to be most willing to pay extra for sustainable offerings — almost three-out-of-four respondents.

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What does the supply chain have to do with it?

The term “sustainability” is pretty mainstream these days — but for many people trying to become more conscious consumers, terms like “ethical supply chain” and “supply chain transparency” can be confusing.

Let’s break them down.

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An ethical supply chain comes down to a corporation’s practices at all levels of the business. Per the Future of Commerce, it emphasizes corporate responsibility in “produc[ing] products and services in a way that treats its workers and the environment ethically.”

This goes hand-in-hand with supply chain transparency, which entails not only collecting data from every part of the supply chain, but also disclosing that information to consumers and internal stakeholders, according to research scientist and director of MIT Sustainable Supply Chains Alexis Bateman.

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Prioritizing ethics means confronting social issues.

When it comes to supply chains, “ethics” is all about ensuring goods aren’t being produced at the expense of people and the environment.

For example, garment workers worldwide are often exploited. And although the U.S. garment industry is worth trillions, 85% of workers don’t earn a minimum wage.

Supporting garment workers’ rights is part of developing an ethical supply chain.

The same goes for protecting animal welfare and eliminating child labor.

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If we don’t develop ethical supply chains now, people will suffer even more in the next global crisis.

Human rights groups have already pointed out that the COVID-19 pandemic led to “increased worker exploitation.”

Why?

The pandemic strained the global supply chain, and restrictions made supplier auditing more difficult. If companies hadn’t already invested in ethics and sustainability initiatives, those things fell further to the wayside.

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Getting corporations to change their ways might seem impossible.

But remember: People as a collective hold a lot of power.

Just think of the Delano Grape Strike, which began in 1965 and saw Filipino and Mexican-American farm workers protesting for fair wages and benefits. Their demands prompted an international boycott.

The successful five-year long strike led to the development of the U.S.’s first farm workers union: the United Farm Workers of America (UFW).

As consumers, we have to accept responsibility that we all helped create this mess, but that we can all help solve it. Consumers have real power. It’s about time we used it.

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What can you do?

Shopping ethically can be complicated. Circumstances like your budget and where you live may impact where your dollars go. But if you're looking to support supply chain transparency and ethical supply chains, consider taking these steps.

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Check for third-party certifications and reports.

The Association for Supply Chain Management has an Enterprise Certification for companies following their standards for supply chain ethics (though companies have to proactively apply to receive it). You can also familiarize yourself with food labels that shed light on supply chains.

And then there are organizations, like Remake, that monitor, report on, and advocate for ethical supply chains. Follow them on social media, search their websites for brands you’re curious about, and donate to help their causes.

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Check out a company’s code of conduct.

Most companies have a code of conduct detailing their commitments to sustainability and human rights (though it it may be called something else, like a code of ethics).

Look for clear, actionable steps the company is taking to meet those standards — like signing on to the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh for the garment industry. Truly ethical companies will do (and disclose) more than what’s legally required of them — because let’s be real, that’s often the bare minimum.

If a company doesn’t have its own code of ethics or makes it incredibly difficult to find, consider that a red flag.

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Put pressure on politicans.

Real change goes beyond individual shopping habits.

Legislative reform is crucial for improving ethical standards; after all, it’s hard to hold companies accountable if they aren’t breaking any laws.

There has been some progress on that front: In 2021, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the Garment Worker Protection Act, which requires corporations to pay garment workers a $14 minimum wage.

New York may also pass the Fashion Act, which would hold brands accountable for disclosing the impacts of their supply chains.

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Read More about supply chain ethics:

Ethical Consumer creates its own ethical ratings for over 40,000 companies, brands, and products.

If you’re into fashion, Good On You rates brands based on their sustainability and suggests fast fashion alternatives.

And check out this article on how to avoid “greenwashing,” a practice of companies hopping on the ethical and sustainability trend without any real action.

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