The new year is not yet a month old, but already retailers are again embroiled in controversy.
After the rows and recriminations over BHS and Sports Direct in 2016, a raft of well-known fashion retailers have found themselves facing allegations of exploitative conditions among supplier companies.
According to an investigation by Channel 4’s Dispatches, some suppliers – not in a far-flung corner of the globe but in Leicester – were paying workers below the minimum wage in factories that, in one case at least, were also firetraps.
The retailers have of course pledged to take action, but it’s depressing that such rogue behaviour was not spotted earlier through auditing. As in previous instances, unauthorised sub-contracting by one supplier to another seemed to be a problem.
Many consumers don’t spend too much time thinking about how low prices are achieved, accustomed as they are to the great value that retailers provide as standard.
However, for others, perhaps an increasing number, corporate reputation matters. It influences where they spend and who they want to work for.
While shoppers who prefer to ask no questions bear some responsibility for the conditions borne by that those who make their clothes, it is up to retailers to shoulder accountability.
“They should be proud to build their fortunes as good corporate citizens operating to the highest standards, and do all they can to ensure their suppliers are too”
Not just because of legal obligations, but simply because it is the right thing to do.
They should be proud to build their fortunes as good corporate citizens operating to the highest standards, and do all they can to ensure their suppliers are too.
Solutions are not simple. But retailers can learn from one of retail’s fashion giants, one which continues to deliver keen value for customers – Primark.
Once a prime target for campaigners, sometimes unfairly, Primark has for years now put ethical retail at the heart of its business.
In the aftermath of the Rana Plaza disaster, it was at the forefront of retail’s response and set an example for others to follow.
In the long term, preservation of one’s good name is likely to be as important as great product, prices or service.
Watch the telly for sentiment clues
As retailers ponder how consumer confidence may hold up in the year to come, there was some good news from Dixons Carphone.
The retailer, which outperformed expectations over Christmas, has a way of its own of gauging the mood.
Large-screen TVs are regarded at Dixons Carphone as a “bellwether for consumer sentiment”.
They “showed a solid performance over peak in all markets, which we were glad to see”, reported chief executive Seb James.
Perhaps, along with the John Lewis weekly numbers, a Dixons Carphone telly sales monthly confidence survey might become a fixture of the retail benchmarking data in these uncertain times?