The issue has assumed greater importance following the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory building in Bangladesh earlier this year, in which more than 1,100 people lost their lives.
But many of the factors that contributed to this disaster, including corruption, ignorance and low working standards, are still commonplace, according to speakers at a recent event organized by sustainability and ethics consultants Responsible Trade Worldwide (RTW).
As a result, retailers are increasingly looking to establish partnerships with their suppliers that promote sustainability and ethical working practices.
At present, large retailers can easily exceed 100,000-plus suppliers, and therefore a scalable approach is required.
As Jo Webb, the head of stakeholder relations for Sedex and member of the UN Global Compact Supply Chain Sustainability Advisory Group, explained: "Risks increase further down the supply chain – whilst at the same time the capacity to address those risks decreases – it is the iceberg of non-compliance lurking beneath the surface. Focusing on first-tier suppliers only is not enough. Collaboration is key. Some of the chronic supply chain issues we are seeing are endemic and no one company can solve them on their own. Duplication is still prevalent.”
Major retailers are now taking action, identifying the challenges with their suppliers so that they can tackle them together, and offering greater equality to workers by encouraging open conversations at all levels.