Exploitation shouldn't be the true cost of cheap food

Last night's Channel 4 expose into the working conditions of migrants packing fruit for some of the UK's biggest supermarkets shouldn't be overlooked, argues Chris Arnold, blogger, creative partner of Creative Orchestra Advertising and author of Ethical Marketing & The New Consumer.

Exploitation shouldn't be the true cost of cheap food
Exploitation shouldn't be the true cost of cheap food

If you could buy an apple for 20% less but knew that some poor migrant worker would be made to work long hours, far below an acceptable wage, in shocking conditions, often not allowed a break for hours, would you?

I don’t think we need a research company to tell us the answer. 

Consumers may like discounts but not ones that leave a bad taste in the mouth

So what were the supermarkets thinking? They can’t pretend they aren’t aware that heavy discounting can and historically has proven to impact worker exploitation. If a TV channel can discover it, so can they. "Where there’s a will… " as they say. 

The recent revelations, highlighted by Channel 4’s investigation into the UK fruit packing industry, doesn't make trusted brands like Waitrose, Sainsbury’s and M&S look good. As for Aldi (the Primark of food), well, were we really that surprised? 

Apparently 25% of our fruit may be associated with such exploitation, but if we start to look at all the other items in a supermarket, how many will reveal similar stories? Supermarkets should be doing more to protect their reputation and put an end to exploitation in the supply chain.

The tip of an ethical iceberg?

The centre of focus in Channel 4’s programme is a farm in Kent, staffed mainly by Romanian workers, lured here by a network of employment agencies. If history is anything to go by then this supplier is not alone, it is just the tip of an unethical iceburg.

The result of the investigation is that Aldi has suspended its contract and other supermarkets are investigating, as is The Gangmasters Licensing Authority.

But the bigger threat is to the reputation of these brands and the fact that the British media love to uncover exposes on big brands that behave unethically and these stories go viral.

Given how competitive the supermarkets are, it’s one thing to attract customers through discounts but consumers are just as likely to avoid you if the ethics of your brand is bad.

In todays market, when every brand is talking about the importance of connecting and engaging customers, about dialogues and partnership, brand trust is everything

Consumers don’t believe the claims that big retailers simply don't know. It's not the first time a scandal like this has made headline news. Numerous articles going back for years have exposed exploitation in the UK, Europe and around the world - all driven by retailers demanding lower prices.

Back in April the British Retail Consortium called for action against the exploitation of migrant workers, and said it was the main concern of retailers to maintain high ethical values. So where is the progress?

In May, Four Corners (Australia's longest-running investigative journalism/current affairs television program) revealed mass exploitation of migrant workers in Australia and named Woolworths, Coles, Aldi, IGA, Costco, KFC and Subway as involved. 

Almost 10 years ago ActionAid ran a very success campaign, ‘Who Pays', that targeted supermarkets who were discounting fruit and forcing suppliers to pay the discount - which resulted in farmers from poor countries literally paying for the discount.

Time to step up

The campaign cleverly encouraged customers to challenge supermarkets and the result was a dramatic climb down by the big four, lots of denials they didn’t know (of course) and finally a public declaration that they would foot the bill for the discount. Sainsbury’s even started to highlight the commitment in its ads.

Consumers may like discounts but not ones that leave a bad taste in the mouth.

They seek to trust retailers to take care of the ethics and act in a responsible manner, which is why M&S’s Plan A has been successful. But it doesn’t take much to break that trust. Supermarkets are all desperately chasing the customer in particular with discounts but overlooking the importance of the brand integrity is suicidal. 

The recent VW revelation has been described as "the most catastrophic loss of brand trust since Sunny Delight", which lost millions in sales and has never recovered.

In todays market, when every brand is talking about the importance of connecting and engaging customers, about dialogues and partnership, brand trust is everything. It's time for brands to step up.

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