Straight To The Source

A distributor committed to ethical sourcing shares how she helps eco-conscious brands stay true to their cause.

After working in sustainability and ethical sourcing for the retail industry, Denise Taschereau, co-founder of Vancouver, British Columbia-based distributor Fairware Promotional Products, Ltd. (UPIC: fairware), spotted an opportunity to provide the same services to companies interested in promotional products marketing. Five years later, she and her cohorts at the five-person agency handle product sourcing for ecologically and ethically conscious brands such as Aveda, Ben and Jerry’s, Eileen Fisher and Stonyfield Farm.

“Some of the clients we work with won’t do it any differently, so we’ve had to develop the market and the skills to bring that trust and assurance to them,” says Taschereau. “We always say, ‘Let us do the homework so you don’t end up on 60 Minutes.’”

PPB: How does Fairware evaluate the factories it uses?
DT: We send a survey to suppliers with a letter about our company and what we’re trying to do and about our client and what it’s trying to do, and we share with them our code of conduct, which is based on an international standard code of conduct based primarily on workers’ rights.

Then we send another, fairly in-depth survey to each of our vendors. We ask questions about their supply chain such as: Are you being audited by any other brands? When was your last audit? We get the story about the supplier and what they’re doing.

PPB: Are there times when you dig beyond what the survey tells you?
DT: Last month I was in Shanghai because a client requested a third-party audit of a facility. We collaborated with the client to hire third-party auditors and assess factory conditions. Like any factory we found issues and worked on compliance and improvement.

PPB: What are the auditors checking?
DT: It’s very broad: health and safety, electrical safety, fire safety, wages and overtime, human rights. They look at all sorts of elements, such as payroll books and work logs. From that comes a report to see where there may be violations. Then we create a collective action plan with factories to say, ‘Okay, here’s where things need to improve.’

When I was in Shanghai, I assessed the improvements they had made to date. Not in a formal, third-party way but as a partnership with the factory.

PPB: Fairware works through both the traditional supply chain and outside of it. Is it difficult to find willing collaborators?
DT: Four years ago when we started calling people and talking about ethical sourcing, a lot of folks weren’t interested or were uncomfortable because it’s their supply chain we were asking about. There were suppliers at that time that never answered an e-mail. Then eight months ago we talked to them again and they were like, ‘Oh yeah, we had to do that for NBC and Disney.’ All of a sudden, because some of the major clients and customers are asking, suppliers are willing to go through it.

PPB: Why run a socially and environmentally conscious company in this industry?
DT: Smart entrepreneurs go where there is true opportunity, and I think the promotional product industry is ripe for revolution. It needs to fundamentally change, and I’d love to be part of that—I feel like I am part of that.

IMAGE: Workers in a Shanghai bag factory that has partnered with Fairware Promotional Products, Ltd.

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