Tesco to bring ethics to the aisles

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The Independent Online
Tesco, the supermarket chain, is setting up a 70-strong team of ethical advisers to help monitor the goods it sells in its stores.

The advisers will check foodstuffs and other products the chain sells so that a new code of conduct, designed to ensure that its third world suppliers do not exploit child or forced labour, is adhered to.

The plan is the most significant breakthrough yet in the battle for so-called ethical retailing - where consumers use their spending power to force producers to improve standards for workers.

The initiative may help Tesco to recoup some of the moral high ground after adverse publicity surrounding a TV documentary about the conditions for workers growing mangetout in Africa, exported to the supermarket chain.

The issue of ethical retailing has been championed by Clare Short, Labour's spokeswoman on Overseas Development, in partnership with Christian Aid, and will be highlighted at a conference in London this week on ethical practice in business, finance and banking.

In a letter to Ms Short's office, Bernard Hughes, Tesco's government and political relations manager, argues: "We are determined not to mislead our customers by pretending that we can claim that all of the 20,000 products sold in our stores are produced in conditions akin to those in western Europe. Nevertheless we will impose minimum standards and we will do our very best to make sure that they are adhered to rigorously. Our management systems will be deployed to make sure this happens".

Last week Mr Hughes said the move would not result in any significant rise in prices.

However, one area of contention remains - the monitoring procedures for the ethical code of practice. Tesco's technologists will spend only part of their time enforcing the code of practice, and the remainder looking at ways of improving production and export procedures. Pressure groups want an independent body to oversee ethical codes, a move to which Tesco is not yet committed.

Andrew Simms, spokesman for Christian Aid, said: "It is extremely encouraging that Tesco is committing so publicly to improving its ethical behaviour. It is vital that it embraces independent monitoring so that consumers can have confidence in any claims of improved ethical practice."

Ms Short, who has already switched her bank account to the Co-op for ethical reasons, said: "[The] ethical movement is building new politics and their response to the power of globalisation taps into the very best of people's values. Labour will support and encourage this growing movement and bring it into the political mainstream."