Can you remain ethical when a devious rival is promoted ahead of you? Can you stay civil when a cursing driver cuts you off the road?
By Fareeha Qayoom
odern life means constant competition. We struggle at school for grades and admissions, battle at work for markets and money, and everywhere strive for status and recognition. In this pressure-cooker environment, obsessed by out-of-reach goals and hemmed in by potential adversaries, how can we expect high moral values, let alone courteous behavior, to survive? Is it even realistic to expect ethics to play a key role in everything we do? The deterioration of morals and the erosion of respect in the contemporary urban world impoverish us all. But can we fairly place the blame only on the frantic pace and ferocity of our day-to-day existence?
Tkfr assembled a few experts from our industry to talk about ethics. We asked them a fairly simple question – Do we really need ethics in our business? Is the issue even real? Especially when the spotlight is on us to behave ethically collectively as an industry? We are all familiar with the work National Labor Committee (NLC) continues to do by highlighting sweatshop conditions in Asia and South America by keeping up the pressure and taking on large corporate Giants of our industry like Kohl’s more recently to Wal-Mart, Nike and Gap in the past by staging more store protests and by leasing billboards to illustrate the economic disparity between their executives and their vendor’s workers. They are best known for their campaign against U.S. entertainer Kathie Lee Gifford and Wal-Mart four years ago, NLC has also taken on casual apparel retailer Gap Inc., and athletic shoemaker Nike Inc. Kohl’s corporation is their most recent target. Vendors are feeling the heat too, especially since the pressure is on them to comply ethically with the international standard terms of engagement (TOE) if they want to continue working with their long time customers like Nike, Gap, Levi’s…
Omar Dar (Klass Textiles) feels “it’s a good thing if it’s implemented in the true spirit. A lot of progress has been made already – things were never bad to begin with but it wasn’t a priority in the past. I think it started back in 1993. Levi’s was the first customer who started paying attention to the TOE issues. I guess because the spotlight was on them to behave more ethically by the US media. Things have improved considerably since more attention is now being paid to the worker issues. The TOE movement should have started from inside, not through external pressure. However, the fact is, ultimately the workers are benefiting no matter where the pressure is coming from. They are getting cold water to drink in the summer heat, they have better working conditions and pay benefits, they are getting medical attention on the spot and safer working environment to work in. On ground these things have improved. There is a need to bring it to a minimally acceptable level by the whole industry.”
“I know in a perfect world, everyone would behave ethically, however, in the real world if it’s a clash between ethics and the bottom line, most people would choose the bottom line – money,” asserts Omar. “It would not even be a second priority. It usually comes last in most people’s list of priorities. I am not saying money is the most important issue. Ethics do play a role too and given a chance most people would like to behave ethically. However, on a scale, I would give ethics thirty percent – money would win each time if it ever comes to a choice between the two. After all, we are running a business, not a charity and earning profit is the name of the game. It’s a judgment call. Every situation is unique and brings it’s own sets of solutions. Sometimes it’s a question of ethics and sometimes, it’s a question of money. Personally I go for the minimum cost factor.”
Moiz Farooq (Ammar Textiles) does not agree with this view. “Ethics is necessary. It’s a way of life. It’s not a commodity. Either you are ethical or you are not. Lapses do occur. However, as long as you achieve an acceptable level of professional, legal and ethical behavior in daily operations consistently, you are ethical. For example, I think Levi’s is an ethical company. It’s not mere lip service. They mean it and it shows. They do not work in Middle East due to TOE issues.”
“If you want to earn money, taking the ethical way is more profitable in the long run,” comments Moiz. “We sincerely believe that at Ammar. Our mission statement is all about ethics – integrity, continuous learning, leadership, teamwork and social responsibility. I personally and professionally believe in behaving ethically.
I don’t need to convince or justify this attitude…it’s our corporate direction and it’s crystal clear. It’s also our short term and long-term strategy in crisis management. It pays to be ethical. Nobody is perfect. But as a policy, ethics play a key role in our systems and labor management policies. Intensive education at all levels gives us strength to implement our mission statement in routine matters and daily operations. I can’t stress enough ethics starts from the top.”
Tkfr was also curious to know if ethics play any role in crisis management and in communicating bad news to the customers? The responses we got were quite mixed. Camille Pearson-Walz (Room and Board) is not a stranger to Pakistan. Throughout her diverse career, (she used to be a product manager for Munsingwear’s Golf lines – Grand Slam® and Munsingwear®, before the brands were acquired by Supreme International – she has been a leather accessory buyer and manufacturing specialist for men’s and women’s leather outerwear, and before that she used to buy leather apparel, now she buys furniture), one thing has remained constant, the rules of buying have not changed. “In the business that I am in now (furniture) – HONESTY – INTEGRITY – TRUST are key to a solid partnership,” says Camille. “I work for a unique company that truly values the vendor. I work with my vendors’ daily and in partnership along side with our merchandising team to make sure we are communicating and understanding clearly what the bottom line is. I rarely need to ask for a discount. I have never asked for freight to be prepaid due to a delay…charge backs are rare and because of this we are not cheated or overcharged on the real cost for developing and producing new lines.”
“Sometimes, it’s difficult to be honest with the customer and their local agents,” says Omar. “Nobody wants to hear bad news, especially the buyer’s agents. They are not very receptive – the normal reaction is to shoot the messenger. The customer’s people are not very technically sound and do not understand the manufacturing issues. It makes it tough to communicate bad news and stay honest. Sometimes, the agents do not provide vital pieces of information received from the customer that could help improve the situation. Communication plays a very important role in developing customer/vendor relationship. Timing is also an issue. It’s not only ‘how’ you communicate the bad news, ‘when’ is also important. It also depends on the working relationship with that customer. It’ more of a judgment call – there is a certain degree of manipulation involved since customer’s agents need to be handled with care and tact when communicating bad news. It’s never certain if they ever tell the customer the complete story or the truth gets bent out of shape in the telling by the agent so it’s a very sensitive issue and needs to be handled with extreme care.”
Camille, on the other hand, is not unsympathetic to the manufacturer’s issues, however, she feels the bottom line is achieving effective results and it can only be achieved if communications between customer and vendor are handled more honestly – she comments,” Buyer’s (if their company will allow the time and money) need more education as to what goes into manufacturing: finding workers, competition, engineering, supply problems from fabric and print sources. This needs to be done up front so a buyer understands the expectations of each resource. Buyers usually don’t want to hear excuses. They want what the vendor ‘promised’ up front. Buyers need vendors to provide realistic costing and delivery date information up front and then be as proactive as possible to advise delays so they can realign promotions/advertising. The buyer pays their agents to take care of the problems and to smooth out the trouble spots so that they can spend more time on the ‘big picture’ with more customer focus and development on the future. When a vendor or buyer is not being realistic and up front then there is sure to be disappointment at the end. That is where the agents come in.”
Moiz also concurs with Camille. He insists honesty in communication is very important, especially if it’s bad news. “Lying does not work long term. The customer will find out tomorrow if you lie to him today. Creditability is very important in communication. Besides, just think about it for a minute – if there are ten processes in producing a certain product for example, and you mess up at stage one, if you keep lying to cover up the mess; the customer will still find out at stage nine or ten. What will you do? Will you add on more lies? Things have a way of snowballing out of control in such a situation. Lying means ending up with the potential egg on your face; it’s risky. It could go either way. You could end up a hero but chances of falling are greater when you are out on a limb. It’s better to tell the customer the truth upfront. In fact, I am quoting from a recent example. We messed up in our planning schedules big time. We went to the customer and told him up front. The customer was empathetic and helped us by being patient while we worked through the planning crisis and production. We had to pay the price for messing up by airing the goods but we kept the customer. We went back and redid the planning for next six months. The end result, we did such a good job, we executed the next quarter’s orders by delivering before our deadlines and exceeded the customer’s expectations. We managed the crisis honestly and it worked. It pays to be honest in long run.”
Camille, however, agrees with Omar to a certain extent by allowing in a little creative management in communications, she adds in an advice to agents… “When you are managing many resources, maybe you should ‘pad’ (a week or two) the dates for shipping so that the buyer / customer isn’t disappointed with common delays – workers didn’t show up – fabric did not meet expectations – equipment breakdown – weather problems, ship couldn’t fit container. Educate as much as possible. This way a buyer might have a clearer understanding that there are real and dedicated people, making the product and they get sick and have problems just like we do and bad things happens…. so prepare for it. It would be nice if the apparel industry would be different but it has been the way it’s been for decades. Buyers, not unlike me, have selective hearing,” she says. “Apparel is such a fast paced business and so competitive they are judged more critically on did the product deliver on time? Was it what we ordered? And did it sell? They aren’t judged on how well they work with a resource or how well they understand manufacturing. Bottom line is did they contribute to the bottom line in a favorable manner? And not necessarily what compromises can be taken to insure longer-term success.”
Cindy Boeddeker (Premium wear Inc.) puts things in perspective. “In my opinion, a buyer needs to be made aware of the issues; as chances are they will impact the delivery of the product. I believe the agent can manage the minor issues that will not impact the delivery. I think however, the buyer should be made aware even if it does not impact the delivery- it should give the buyer confidence that you are managing the production details of their orders. I am sure not all buyers think alike, some buyers may think that, its your job to trouble shoot and manage the production details and bottom line hit the delivery date…As Premium Wear is a manufacturer as well as a sourcer – we believe a true partnership includes knowing the necessary details – so we can work together to resolve issues, or be made aware of issues early on, so we can inform our customers.”
Camille adds a last word on corporate ethics by commenting, “All parties are in business to provide a service/ fulfill a want or need for the end user. If each party has respect for one another, conducting business would be more fulfilling. If you aren’t enjoying what you are doing, then maybe you should look to do something else…this isn’t brain surgery.” ¨
This article was originally published in the print edition “The Knit-Xtyle Fashion Review,” Tkfr, issue 11.
Klass Textiles and Ammar Textiles closed down a good few years ago. Moiz Farooq and Omer Dar opened up their own businesses. Lahore Knitwear industry has shrunk down to a few giant players like Comfort Knitwear, Combined Fabrics and Leisure Textiles. The days of big corporate vertical giants is no more. Editor