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Dr John Hayward: Primark and ethical consumerism

Dr_john_hayward Dr John Hayward, executive director of the Jubilee Centre, a social reform charity that explores a relational vision for society. Their research has included areas such as criminal justice, asylum and immigration, the environment, care for the elderly, and credit and debt.

Even before Sunday night's Ten O'Clock News advertised Monday's Panorama programme exposing the use of child labour by some of Primark's suppliers in India, the discount clothing store had pre-emptively responded by cancelling its contract with the three factories discovered to be subcontracting work from children who carried out embroidery and sequin work in their homes. My immediate reaction to the news was to sigh, "Another group of children who will now end up in prostitution or more abusive work environments." It therefore came as no surprise to me when development charities working in the area began to criticise the retailer on precisely this point.

Primark's director, Breege O'Donoghue, has defended his company's decision to cease sourcing its clothes from the three suppliers by maintaining, "The relationship was broken." However, this simply serves to underline how disposable we in the West have come to view relationships. We appear blind not only to the impact of our consumerism on the physical environment but, even more damagingly, to its impact on the lives of other people around us. Thus, the increasingly dominant elderly section of our society is hidden away in care homes.

Ever growing numbers of prisoners are locked away in cells and afforded no opportunity for training, rehabilitation or treatment. Troubled teenagers are dismissed as lost causes. And trends such as declining marriage rates (the lowest since records began almost 150 years ago), the ease with which people increasingly resort to divorce (45% of marriages are now expected to end this way), and the astonishing proportion of children now born outside of marriage (a majority of those born to British-born mothers) or living in single-parent families (more than a quarter) seem to indicate that commitment to others – to community – is a thing of the past. Our individualistic, consumer mentality tells us that if we don't feel personally satisfied by our circumstances and relationships, then we should get out and find alternative options that might better fulfil our own individual needs, without any real consideration of the impact our choices might have upon others.

Primark's current humiliation is not the first such scandal, neither will it be the last time that UK retailers are found to be profiting from sweatshop labour in the world's poorer communities. As the global credit crisis has shown us, trust and moral behaviour are both necessary and economically beneficial to the operation of our market-based economy. If we really want to become ethical consumers in today's global village, then Western companies surely have a responsibility to retain and retrain suppliers that fail to meet our ethical standards. More than that, though, each of us also has responsibilities:

  • as customers, to realise that the issues involved in trying to make "ethical" purchases are far more complex and interwoven than simply looking for the right brand, logo or kite mark.
  • as shareholders, to exercise what influence we can to promote greater awareness and engagement with the challenges facing our poorer global neighbours.
  • as citizens, to question whether our own choices and actions are socially and globally responsible, promote a climate of trust and hope, and encourage others to develop positive relationships in their families and communities.

If we are to help those around us achieve their potential and to see any improvement in the plight of those most disadvantaged in the world – whether that be children in need of education in the slums of India or prisoners failed by the education and welfare systems in Britain – then we will need to start being a little less self-centred and a little more conscious of how our decisions affect other people. As the proverb puts it: "The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern."


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