Container Ship

The Challenge of Ethics in a Globalized Economy

Small world!  You probably hear that phrase a lot.  The idea that technology is shrinking the world, connecting it in ways that make its physical vastness less significant, has been around for awhile, and in many ways it is true.  Instant communication to all corners of the world has never been easier and transport is so efficient that almost the entire globe is linked via supply chains and commercial trade.  This shrinking of the world has brought economic opportunity to the far reaches of the globe, lifting millions out of poverty. But there is a downside as it relates to the garment industry.

When business is conducted almost exclusively via electronic communication, piecing together a supply chain becomes just a numbers game.  You send an email to suppliers in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Malaysia and others asking for price quotes, you chose among numbers and timeframes and you place an order.  Before technology made this all possible this would have been a strange way to do business.  Virtually all business relationships would have been initiated face to face, you might even tour the facilities and this would give you a sense of place, and the manufacturer would be a face and name; a human relationship rather than simply numbers on a spreadsheet.

While this might seem like an inconsequential distinction it can have dramatic effects on the ethics of garment manufacturing.  When you have a business relationship with someone there is a subconscious absorption of all kinds of human information: Do I trust this person? Are they trying to cheat me? Do I want to associate myself with them? Would they treat their employees well? With a global supply chain there may be cultural and language barriers beyond just the sheer physical distance that makes relational business interactions challenging.  So instead what happens in the mind of the clothing company staff is the process gets divided in two ethically.  The ethical matters that would normally be conveyed from one party to another in a business relationship, issues of trust, fairness, honesty etc., are completely stripped out of the process and all that remains is an economic transaction.  The chain of ethical transmission breaks.

This is understandable based on the psychology of the experience.  If I am doing business with someone I have never met in person, who doesn’t speak my language proficiently and whose cultural background differs dramatically from my own, then how can I form opinions about their ethics or know whether they can be trusted?  I can’t, and so they become not really a human business partner, but simply numbers in an equation. Investing the time and effort into global supplier relationships to form the trust and understanding required to maintain ethical sourcing takes a real commitment on both ends.

This is the only way to sort out those who would do anything to make an extra buck from those you can trust to make ethical choices even when they may be costly.  An important part of what FairWear is doing is seeking out global relationships with manufacturing partners who take pride in the work they do and the people they employ, and when we find them we bring them more business and better prices, creating incentives to improve lives rather than a race to the bottom.