Thursday, October 18, 2012

Shopping With Your Conscience

The past 10 or 15 years have seen a raft of new initiatives within retail branding and packaging, foremost amongst which has been the Fairtrade initiative, whose main initiative is to ensure the original producer receives a 'fair price' for their raw material, semi-finished or finished product.

Some consumers, given the option of choosing one brand or another, select the product that has on its packaging the FAIRTRADE sign, and feel positive about buying in such a way.

For over 30 years, some brands of cosmetics have included the statement 'not tested on animals' on their packaging, with some including the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection's 'Leaping Bunny' symbol. This has enabled those with a sensitivity towards animals to make educated shopping choices.

The same industry has also often promoted on its packaging the fact that products do not contain chemical X or Y, whose effects have been shown to be not entirely beneficial; parabens, for example.

Retailers of designer Italian handbags are also adding to their well-known Luxury Italian leather bags new collections of Italian eco-leather handbags and vegan handbags, aimed at ecologically aware and vegetarian shoppers. There are many and varied reasons for companies to innovate in the production cycle and then communicate those innovations in the form of marketing.

In the UK, many large retailers encourage the reuse of bags instead of providing plastic bags. It is well known that plastic does not biodegrade and that it is derived from the rapidly depleting stocks of petroleum; in the US alone, 31 million tons of plastic waste were generated in 2010, so it is hard to even contemplate how many billion tons have accumulated since the outbreak of the boom of plastic in the 1950s and 60s.

With so much to consider, is there anything else consumers may wonder about before they make their purchasing choice?

I have wondered at times whether it would be important before choosing a brand, given the wide range of products and brands in the same category, to get reliable information about the human resources policy of companies Y and Z pertaining to its employees and managers. Mindful businesses rely on their human resources to operate; each country has a specific labour legislation and is likely to have a different culture as regards dealing with people within the company.

From my personal experience, I can testify that in some European countries, the policy ostensibly called 'labour flexibility' gives rise to employment contracts whose primary impact has been to leave the worker, employee, manager and so on in an extremely precarious situation and, accordingly also, their families and communities.

And this has led naturally to abuse by employers, through broken promises or excuses related to 'temporary problems'.

There are companies that present a positive, even 'ethical' image of their product or service through marketing campaigns and so on, and yet are questionable in their treatment of their staff. I do not necessarily mean political authoritarianism or abuse of power, just that they do not care about a serious and responsible human resources policy, nor about the consequences of their policies, creating job insecurity, nor the impact on the related families.

But how do we bring an element of transparency to such 'private' business secrets? How do we enable consumers to be able to include a supportive employment policy in their 'ethical shopping list' of desirable company characteristics? And how do we enable them to eschew the goods of those who purport to be ethical and yet whose admirable ethics do not extend to those at the bottom of their own business's pyramid?

However large and powerful a company, however pervasive and well known its products, the fate of every brand is in the hands of the consumer; this is a power comparable to a democratic vote in the election of a politician or ruler to power.

If information about companies' internal human resources policies were aired publicly, consumers could make a conscious choice, not only about price and quality, but also about how a company cares for and respects its employees, who work hard each and every day.

Current employees could utilise social media and communications networks to submit their stories so as to help raise this kind of awareness, and imagine how useful such information would be to potential job applicants and shareholders.

It could be a formula to disarm unscrupulous free-marketeers and penalize them through more democratic system: the option of purchase strengthens or weakens a company in the market, sometimes forever. Just as a democratic vote strengthens or weakens politicians.

There is undoubtedly more than one company with a 'clean' image thanks to its trade (and, more importantly, its marketing) yet which is truly detestable in relation to their contempt for human resources.

With unemployment rates continuously increasing, maybe I won't find unanimity for such an initiative; yet I'm sure there are many people out there prepared to tell stories of their treatment in the workplace that would make our hair curl far more effectively than any serum or tongs.

Those cases must be exposed; it may be a helping hand for potential customers and loyal ones to make purchasing choices, but on another level, it's the duty of an ethical world to unmask those brands with doubtful ethics concerning their human resources policies.

Alex Chornogubsky has an international background in business, having lived and worked in different European and Latin American countries. Over the last 20 years, he has managed Italian subsidiaries within the fashion and cosmetic markets.He is now the director of Bags and Arts Ltd. If you're looking for new trends or timeless collections of Luxury Italian leather bags, belts and gloves for women and men, visit =>

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