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When Shopping isn't Only Driven By the Price Tag

Despite general belt-tightening, price isn't all that matters to German consumers. A growing number want products that aren't made in Third World sweat shops, thus forcing companies to ensure that's the case.


"Made in Thailand"?

Social campaigns in recent years have ensured that a growing number of German consumers now first reach for the "Made in" label before they buy a product or avoid stores tainted by allegations of exploiting cheap labor in the Third World.

Mädchen knüpft einen Teppich

An ethnic Hazara girl weaves a carpet in a small workshop on the outskirts of Mazar-e-Sharif, northern Afghanistan.

Whether it's toys manufactured somewhere in Hongkong during an 18-hour shift for near non-existent wages, skirts and jeans that come from factories where labor unions are banned, coffee bought from farmers in Latin America at dumping prices or carpets from India or Pakistan woven by children, social groups and NGOs are tirelessly uncovering unfair working conditions and exploitation worldwide.

"Campaigns such as the one for clean clothes have complained about poor conditions in the production factories of big German clothing companies and pointed out that it's the companies' responsibility to ensure the factories uphold social standards," Ingeborg Wick of Südwind, a research institute on the developing world told Deutsche Welle.

Giving in to social pressure

Little wonder then that large German retail companies, which attract attention from social campaigns on account of their mass production, are now increasingly confronted with issues of sustainability and social standards and are under pressure to avoid bad publicity that might damage their image.

Some of them like Germany's biggest department store operator KarstadtQuelle AG have even set up separate groups to deal with the topic and hired trained personnel to advise them.

Heinz-Dieter Koeppe, director of KarstadtQuelle's environment and social policies, admits the company has bowed to outside pressure. "We've certainly done a few things thanks to pressure from social campaigns. We wouldn't have done it so soon otherwise."

Koeppe points out that the company has, for instance, intervened in the debate on the miserable working conditions in Chinese toy factories.

"Here at least we've managed to make the producers tackle the issue. It's now binding on the large importers to examine their local suppliers and to report about them," Koeppe said. "Naturally, it doesn't mean that we've improved everything. It's a process, it'll probably last years. But at least there's some momentum."

Adidas flaunts social credentials

Even German sports good company Adidas says it's committed to ensuring its products are fairly-made.

"Think of sports goods production and one immediately thinks of child labor and the like," said Frank Henke, whose official title at Adidas is "Global Director for Social and Environmental Affairs."

Henke, who heads a team of 32 experts, is responsible for making sure that Adidas T-shirts and shoes are only manufactured under conditions that correspond to globally-established norms. They make pesonal visits to factories to get a first-hand impression.

"For example, we have a so-called "Standards of Engagements" list that we hand out to all our suppliers so that they can implement these standards on topics such as health, labor protection, environment protection and core working norms," Henke said.

Adidas Schuhe

Sports shoes of German sports goods maker Adidas-Salomon AG on display in a shop in Magdeburg, eastern Germany.

According to Adidas around 250,000 employees work in production factories around the world for the company. Adidas' 900 suppliers come from 50 countries, more than half of which are located in Asia.

Long way to go

Despite the progress, Wick however is clear that German companies still have a lot to do. "German companies aren't pioneers here, internationally it was U.S. companies like Nike and Reebok that first faced the heat in the 1980s," she said.

Wick says that the most important thing for companies is to allow independent investigations into factory conditions and not just carry them out themselves. "Often so-called external monitors were financial research groups commissioned by the companies -- we don't consider that as independent," she said.

She added that companies also had to consider how ever-increasing market competition was affecting the working conditions at the production sites.

"Global shopping practices demand that the factories, mostly located in the Third World, need to supply products to the companies very quickly, often there's a change of design and the like and so the factories demand a lot from their workers," Wick said.

"On this front creating products for companies like C&A or Metro has become such an intense global competition that it pushes down social standards constantly."

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