Ethical Commitments

What are ‘ethical codes of conduct’?

Most UK brands and retailers now have some sort of ethical code of conduct, setting out the minimum standards they expect suppliers to comply with. These can vary hugely in content and scope, and in terms of what is actually done to implement them.

A good code should be based on internationally recognised labour rights, in particular those set out by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Conventions. The ILO is a UN agency which aims to promote social justice and human and labour rights.

The Ethical trading Initiative

In the UK the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) focuses on improving the implementation of ‘codes of practice’ on supply chain working conditions.

The ETI is an alliance of companies, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and trade unions. It was set up in the late 1990s as a result of public pressure on companies to ensure decent working conditions for the people producing their goods.

Many UK retailers are now members, although some — such as the Arcadia Group, which includes Topshop, Topman, and Dorothy Perkins — still refuse to join.

All the companies that are members of the ETI accept they have a responsibility for the conditions in their supply chain and agree to adopt the ETI’s base code. This code is based on ILO Conventions.

The clauses of the ETI Base code

  • Employment is freely chosen — no involuntary labour

  • Freedom of association and collective bargaining is respected - the right of workers to organise to represent their interests. This is important in itself — and it is essential for the realisation and guarantee of all other basic rights — for example in determining a fair wage, and upholding rights day-to-day.

  • Working conditions are safe and hygienic

  • Child labour shall not be used

  • ‘Living wages’ shall be paid.

A living wage is one that covers basic needs (such as food and water, housing, clothing, education, healthcare and transport), and provides a discretionary income - guaranteeing an existence ‘worthy of human dignity’ (Universal Declaration of Human Rights).

  • Working hours are not excessive — A normal working week of no more than 48 hours per week with at least one day off for every 7 day period on average. Overtime should be optional and should not exceed 12 hours per week.

  • No discrimination is practised — workers have the same rights, whatever their race, caste, national origin, religion, age, disability, gender, marital status, sexual orientation, union membership or political affiliation.

  • Regular employment shall be provided — this prohibits employers from trying to avoid their obligations to workers by for example, giving them unfair contracts, or sub contracting No harsh or inhumane treatment is allowed — no physical or verbal abuse, harassment or intimidation.

A company says they’re a member of the Ethical Trading Initiative. Doesn’t that show they’re taking their responsiblities seriously?

Participation in a ‘Multi-stakeholder Initiative’ such as the ETI is a vital first step for companies:

  • The problems in the garment industry are complex and require concerted action. A change by one retailer will not be enough of an incentive to change a supplier’s practices, or a government’s approach and retailers will be unlikely to make the necessary changes acting alone — the industry as a whole needs to move. The ETI helps companies make changes together.

  • The ETI introduce a level of transparency and accountability that would otherwise be non-existent. Companies must report annually and their progress is monitored and evaluated by NGO and Trade Union members.

  • The ETI provides a forum in which expertise can be pooled and also an avenue for communication, negotiation and lobbying.

  • Bringing companies together with trade unions and NGOs is more effective than companies just going it alone. Labour behind the Label notes that companies who are not members of the ETI are much weaker in terms of both their ethical policies and their implementation.

But membership of an initiative like the ETI is only the first step.

  • A company’s membership of the ETI is no guarantee that conditions for its workers are acceptable. Retailers do not have to meet minimum standards to be members - they just have to commit to working towards these standards. This means membership of the ETI is only the start of any efforts to improve conditions — not the final point.

  • Ultimately, the impact of the ETI is determined by the activities of its members. Unfortunately they’re not doing enough: a 2006 evaluation of the ETI found that it had so far had only a limited impact on supply chain conditions. The evaluation highlighted the double standards of companies, finding that the promotion of ethical trade was undermined by their other business practices.

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Sources and further reading

Find out more about international labour standards and which countries have ratified ILO conventions.

“The Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) is an alliance of companies, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and trade union organisations. We exist to promote and improve the implementation of corporate codes of practice which cover supply chain working conditions. Our ultimate goal is to ensure that the working conditions of workers producing for the UK market meet or exceed international labour standards.”

  • The ETI code of labour practice: Do workers really benefit?, Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex, 2006

  • Reference information on Codes of conduct from the Clean Clothes Campaign. This reference section on code implementation and verification “presents an overview of eight years of code related work. It provides links to materials that were developed by the CCC and others related to code content, implementation systems and mechanisms for verification. The guide also includes materials regarding the discussion on the usefulness of codes as a strategy for improving the application of international labour standards throughout supply chains, and the primary challenges for the future.”

  • The Clean Clothes Campaign is “an international campaign, focused on improving working conditions in the global garment and sportswear industries, and empower the workers in it. There is a Clean Clothes Campaign in 11 European countries. These are Austria, Belgium (North and South), France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.”.

  • The UK platform of the Clean Clothes Campaign, is Labour behind the Label of which People & Planet is a member. Read more about codes of conduct on their website.

  • JO-IN, The Joint Initiative on Corporate Accountability and Workers Rights brings together the Clean Clothes Campaign, Ethical Trading Initiative, Fair Labour Association, Fair Wear Foundation, Social Accountability International and Workers Rights Consortium to “maximise the effectiveness and impact of multistakeholder approaches to the implementation and enforcement of codes of conduct, by ensuring that resources are directed as efficiently as possible to improving the lives of workers and their families; to explore possibilities for closer co-operation between the organizations; to share learning on the manner in which voluntary codes of labour practice contribute to better workplace conditions in global supply chains.”