Just days ago the Mail on Sunday featured a story about T-shirts that had been made in a sweatshop. The story was significant for a few reasons. First of all because the Daily Mail was writing a story about Ethical Fashion and supply chains – not something that usually fills the pages of the tabloid newspaper. However, it was the slogan on the t-shirt and who was wearing it that suddenly made this T-shirt interesting.
The Fawcett Society is the UK’s leading charity for women’s equality and rights – at home, at work and in public life. They campaign for equality between women and men in the UK on pay, pensions, poverty, justice and politics. So when they teamed up with High St store Whistles & Elle magazine to sell a £45 T-shirt that said ‘This is what a feminist looks like’ and got some of the UK‘s top politicians and celebrities to wear it, it made big news. It drew attention to a vital campaign for equality. But so did the Mail on Sunday’s allegations that the campaign T-shirts were being made in a sweatshop in Mauritius by women who had been paid just 62p an hour to make them and sleep in overcrowded conditions. Sadly, for just a moment at least, the attention was not on the issue the T-shirt slogan said, but rather on the T-shirt itself.
Fawcett, Whistles & Elle were quick to respond to the allegations. The Fawcett Society was adamant they had done everything they should to ensure that the T-shirts were produced ethically. Whistles and Elle both reasserted their commitment to ethical trade and all three organisations made a commitment to a swift and fair investigation into the matter.
It has now emerged that the Mail on Sunday were wrong. The allegations have been proven to be false and the evidence and a supply chain audit conducted by an independent organisation has confirmed that the T-shirts were in fact produced under fair and ethical conditions according to global standards.
Perhaps the only thing that Fawcett, Whistles & Elle did wrong, was to allow some sense of uncertainty to remain in their initial response to the allegations. Fawcett had been assured by Whistles who had been assured by Compagnie Mauricienne de Textile (CMT) that the T-shirts were ethically produced. In most circumstances basic evidence probably would have been enough, but the high profile nature of the campaign perhaps called for a greater scrutiny and evidence base to be provided when the order was placed. That said Fawcett, Whistles & Elle credibility was proven when the audit information was released.
The scenario highlights a vital and important lesson for any business or charity. Far too many other businesses and charities continue to gamble with their reputation and brand value. Charities who can’t guarantee ethical procurement sources and services, companies who subcontract services or remain unconcerned about supply chain audit and brand assurance remain at great reputational risk. Perhaps more important is the moral imperative to ensure social good is assured at every level of operation of a business or charity.
Commercial, campaigning or reputational success cannot only be measured in terms of fiscal return or public support in this day and age. Success must also be measured in terms of the environmental, social and human impact that the products or services have. Today’s consumer is far more savvy about the ethical credentials of a product or service and research shows they favour companies who do something good or have an ethical story to tell. Similarly the support for charities is heavily driven by brand recognition coupled with a demonstrated credibility on the spending and impact of a charity.
Brand assurance is not something reserved for the T-shirt wearing campaigner. It has to be an essential and strategic part of every business and charity. If your brand is worth preserving then it is certainly worth assuring.