Last week I revealed how poverty wages in India’s tea industry fuel a slave trade in teenage girls whose parents cannot afford to keep them. Tea drinkers were naturally upset. So the ethical bodies that certified Assam tea estates paying a basic 12p an hour were wheeled out to give the impression everything would be made right.
For many consumers, that is enough. They want to feel that they are being ethical. But they don’t want to pay more. They are prepared to believe in the brands they love. Companies know this. They know that if they make the right noises about behaving ethically, their customers will turn a blind eye.
So they come down hard on suppliers highlighted by the media. They sign up to the certification schemes – the Ethical Trading Initiative, Fairtrade, the Rainforest Alliance and others. Look, they say, we are good guys now. We audit our factories. We have rules, codes of conduct, mission statements. We are ethical. But they are not. What they have done is purchase an ethical fig leaf.
In the last few years, companies have got smarter. It is rare now to find children in the top level of the supply chain, because the brands know this is PR suicide. But the wages still stink, the hours are still brutal, and the children are still there, stitching away in the backstreets of the slums.