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WORDS OF CAUTION: Apparel companies with a clean record for ethical sourcing labor may be criticized more severely than their less scrupulous competitors should child labor become an issue in their supply chains, according to new research from the University of Bath.

More than 800 participants were presented with lifelike scenarios to evaluate their attitudes, opinions and views of a firm’s actions regarding child labor in the fashion supply chain. These “ordinary members of the public” were shown some information about a hypothetical fashion company, and asked to judge how socially responsible the firm is, Pavelin said. While a firm that took steps to address child labor and unsafe working conditions in its supply chain enjoyed a better reputation than one that had not, in the event of a child labor incident the proactive firms were judged more harshly by people than ones that had previously behaved less responsibly, according to the report.

Stephen Pavelin, professor of business and society at the University of Bath’s School of Management, said, “Rather than prior good behavior protecting a firm from reputational damage, it exposes a firm to greater reputational risk. This provides a stark lesson for a firm that seeks to establish and maintain a good reputation by demonstrating creditable social impacts: such a strategy attracts the greatest reputational punishments in the wake of a child labor scandal. It appears that people are liable to feel that such firms have let them down. Perhaps that such firms have been shown to be hypocritical.”

Pavelin handled the research with his colleague Johanne Grosvold and a PhD student Meggan Caddey. If child labor comes to light, Pavelin contended that transparency is not enough, since people only pay attention to a small subset of available information. “This issue must become a more prominent driver of consumer choices, and to manage reputational risks, firms must come to terms with the dispersed complexity in their supply chains, and find ways to effectively monitor and police the labour practices therein,” Pavelin added.

More than 168 million children are forced into child labor, according to the nonprofit GoodWeave that aims to end child labor. The group just started a two-year pilot project in northern India to establish and test a new sourcing system, which will tackle child and forced labor in informal embellished apparel, fashion jewelry and home textiles supply chains, especially at the homeworker level. GoodWeave will also work closely with communities to offer child protection and educational opportunities, aiming to reach and support 7,500 homeworkers and 6,000 children.

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