Ethical Production: It Can Be Done
In 1989, I decided to launch ECOBAGS®, a brand of cloth shopping bags as an alternative to single-use plastic bags. ECOBAGS®, was ahead of its time, as public awareness of plastic’s impact on the environment was virtually non-existent, but we saw the future and were able to build a successful niche brand.
Ethical manufacturing was a key brand consideration and, soon enough, after exhausting options in the USA for my particular bag and, after a short stint with a producer in Germany, I found exactly what I wanted in a more than willing production partner in India. I didn’t go to India to reduce my costs, I went to India because I found the willingness and ability to produce the product I wanted for a reasonable price.
Having never traveled to India before, I didn’t make any assumptions, but I knew enough to focus on making sure my products were responsibly produced. How could I possibly pioneer the reusable bag movement with products made by captive, underpaid and/or poorly treated people? So, I set off to market with a range of products, adding “fair wage and fair labor” on all the hang tags and inside labels. Our core customers, those in the then-nascent National Products Industry, noticed our labels and tags and commitment, but most people didn’t even know what we were talking about. We talked about this in our marketing and later posted it on our website, but we didn’t make a huge deal about it because no one was really listening and we were going to do it anyway. It was a part of our DNA as a company.
We had many opportunities to lower our costs with other producers, to grow faster and make more money in the short term, but we understood that sustainability encompasses more than the environment. Fair labor practices and respect of human rights are also essential elements of sustainability. It took about 20 years for the fair wage/fair labor concept to be noticed by more than the fringe.
Though businesses have long taken advantage of cheap labor in developing world countries, turning a blind eye to horrific labor practices by their manufacturers, the devastating factory collapse in Bangladesh last month, followed by yet another factory fire this week, have brought this issue front and center in the public eye, making us all question the high cost of inexpensive goods.
So, what will it take to responsibly produce goods without harming others? It will take a desire to do so with a commitment to take the time to build strong relationships and require third-party certifications, and then get certifications to certify the certifications. The most important part of this is trust, and trust takes the longest to build. The bottom line is that not only can corporations operate profitably and ethically, they will have to since the cost of not doing so is beyond prohibitive, as evidenced by the death of nearly 1000 factory workers who lost their lives these past few weeks so that we can “buy one, get one free.”
Sharon Rowe is the CEO and Founder of Eco-Bags Products, Inc. (ecobags.com), a certified BCorporation and member of the Organic Trade Association, Green America and the Women’s President’s Organization.To read more about Eco-Bags Products and how it got started: ecobags.com/timemagazine
Tags: green manufacturing, recycled materials, socially conscious, sustainable materials