There are many things to consider when setting up an online retail business – the amount is mind-boggling! If products are being sourced overseas, decisions also need to be made early on around standards including ethical work practices and the fair treatment of employees in the factories supplying your goods.

Unlike other business decisions, there are no right or wrong answers in this area – ethical trade. For most business owners the choice is more a moral one, and distinct from financial realities.

Ethical Trade – what is it?

Simply put ethical trade is ‘supply chain with a heart’. The Ethical Trading Initiative offers a more thorough definition. Ethical trade means retailers, brands and their suppliers take responsibility for improving the working conditions of the people who make the products they sell.

Companies with a commitment to ethical trade adopt a code of labor practice that they expect all their suppliers to work towards. These codes address issues like:

  • Wages
  • Hours of work
  • Health and safety
  • Right to join free trade unions

While Fair Trade applies to products, and is focused on pricing and trading conditions for primary producers, ethical trade is concerned with the working conditions throughout the supply chain, and can relate to the manufacture, sourcing and supply of any product.

Be true to yourself

When I set up my fashion label James&Co, employing an ethical supply chain and producing goods that were cruelty free was of upmost importance. I am personally very passionate about these issues, and it meant that in any business venture I undertook, I had to remain true to my beliefs.

When I was setting up my business five years ago, the one bit of advice that stuck was to do something I was passionate about. I have always liked a good jacket. In my previous profession as a lawyer, I always wore jackets.  I actually bought a leather jacket every year for many years. Then the fiasco that is live exports came to prominence, and I found myself thinking, “I just can’t do leather”.

Fundamentally this is what led me down the path of creating a business that employs an ethical supply chain.

Ethical trade means retailers, brands and their suppliers take responsibility for improving the working conditions of the people who make the products they sell

I chose to produce faux leather jackets produced via an ethical and cruelty free supply chain. I try to ensure human rights are also upheld at the factories I have used in Pakistan and India. This includes no exploitation of labor, no underpaying and no substandard conditions.

Be clear about your Code of Conduct

I am very transparent about the guiding principles at James&Co – they are on our website. At the moment I produce our jackets at one factory in Pakistan. I expect the company to adhere to our supplier code of conduct.

While government laws for labor and labor regulations are a strong starting point, you will always find businesses that flout the law. To lessen this risk, I am careful about the countries I manufacture in. For example, Bangladesh has a really bad reputation for exploiting its labor. Whilst I would love to support people earning a living there, I choose not to manufacture in these sorts of places because I can’t guarantee my Code of Conduct will be respected.

When I began manufacturing the jackets, I initially started in India as I had done a lot of work there in a previous career. While you have to rely on instinct and word of mouth, I also used an agent to give me confidence in my decisions.

The agent I used has a large export business, so her reputation would not be worth anything if she introduced me to the wrong kind of supplier. Social media is a really strong force for ensuring transparency and honesty in business dealings. You can have all the fair trading laws in the world, but the most powerful deterrent I find is the prospect that you could be named and shamed on any kind of social media website.

Press the flesh

Whilst you cannot be present at the factory 100 percent of the time, you have to be able to accept a fair bit of trust that your ideals will be upheld.

I satisfy myself by visiting my factory on a regular basis. When I was there a few weeks ago I was constantly at the factory. I met all the workers. I saw how they worked with the families. I felt satisfied within myself about the people I deal with.

Social media is a really strong force for ensuring transparency and honesty in business dealings

Information flow to consumers

From my client base, I am not seeing an active demand for supply side transparency, as yet. The majority of positive feedback I receive about my jackets is that they are cruelty free.

James&Co is also accredited by PETA, so a large proportion of our customers are vegan. They are very much driven by what they wear and what they eat. They don’t want to eat or wear parts of animals.

Profit vs. ethics

It’s probably fair to say that you could always source a product cheaper if an ethical supply chain was not important. You just have to go into the large shopping chains to see examples of this strategy.

My products at James&Co are not high end but we are focused on quality. If you compare the faux leather wallets and bags at large discount retailers, the quality there is nowhere near as good. We’re trying to price at a point where you can be ethical in your choices. You shouldn’t let budget be the controlling aspect of whether you can make an ethical choice or not.

Finding your own path

I have found on my journey with James&Co that I am growing more and more passionate about way I build ethical standards into the business. I did not start out with a goal for supply side transparency, but as I have matured my business and my understanding of the industry, I am seeing alternative ways of doing things.

You shouldn’t let budget be the controlling aspect of whether you can make an ethical choice or not.

You are never going to be all things to all people. For example, some people would say faux leather was not very ethical when you consider the chemicals used to produce it.

You need to find a way to remain true to your values whilst building a viable business.

To me, the Ethical Fashion Forum, the industry body for sustainable fashion, and representing over 6000 members in more than 100 countries, has been a very helpful organisation. They offer a sourcing and business database, online network, business intelligence platform, and global program of events.  You can also access their sustainability tool kit for the fashion sector.

We are a members of the Source and have found it helpful in gaining access and locating suppliers who meet our standards.


Featured image via Pixabay under Creative Commons CC0

You may say that, when I first started my online retail business, I had my work cut out for me. I do not have a retail background, I am not a technologist and I had no experience in importing goods. But I have a passionate belief in the digital economy, and I believe that the future of the world is in the online and digital space.

My fundamental driver was, and still is, that being online is really important.

I knew I wanted a business in clothing, I wanted it to be niche and I wanted the products to be produced in a way that supported humanitarian, ethical and cruelty-free lifestyles.

Since I began my business three years ago, the learning curve has been massive. Despite my first foray into manufacturing my own goods having more than its fair share of challenges, I now own an online retail business that has traction in the UK and US.

What I have found over the last three years is, among my fellow e-retailers,  there is a willingness to offer support. A quick Google search reveals loads of ‘how to’ guides on virtually everything and friendly words abound in forum chat rooms.

Below are my top five tips for burgeoning e-retailers, a way of extending my virtual helping hand to those launching their own online dream.

1. Sell something you are passionate about

Sounds logical, doesn’t it? For me, I love a really good jacket. Feedback at the time, which also aligned with my key business principle to be “niche”, was to look for an alternative to a leather jacket. I am a vegetarian, and so the idea of selling a product that was underpinned by humanitarian ideals and was cruelty free was very attractive.

Once you find something, road test and road test again with friends – really anybody – that is willing to be blunt and speak their mind. When you do decide on “the one”, the next step if you are importing the good, is make sure you have contractual arrangements with suppliers in place to ensure the quality of your order will be the same as the sample. Get their commitment in writing.

2. Know your limitations

I think if you don’t necessarily have a background that you can draw upon, you should get some advice.  Not being a technology expert, I outsourced the development of my website. Networking is key to finding people you can trust. I use contacts that I am comfortable with as much as possible.

I belong to a number of different groups, like Women in Business and Woman in Global Business. I go to a lot of presentations and things like that, which also improves my networks.

Once you find something, road test and road test again with friends – really anybody – that is willing to be blunt and speak their mind

3. Educate yourself

I have a background as a lawyer, so I am pretty good at dissecting facts and looking for outcomes. However, I felt completely naked! I had to keep making ‘to do’ lists of what I didn’t know. As I mentioned, there is a wealth of information on the Internet; it is pretty easy to find a “how to” article on just about everything. Don’t go overboard though and sign up for every newsletter you find during your hunt – your inbox will start to groan! Often you don’t need to pay dollars for the knowledge, there is just so much free information out there on the web.

My overall objective from the outset was that I did not necessary want to remain hands on – forever. Even though I am not as familiar with things such as digital marketing concepts and apps, I need to learn the substantive part of it, so when I do engage people to do it, I know what I’m asking them to do. For example, as my products appeal to a large demographic – including those younger than me – I have contracted out the marketing and social media side of things. The messaging needs to be contemporary and I am happy to let people that know what they are doing handle this side of things.

4. Think big

When you start your business, you need to have vision. Not just how it is going to grow locally, but internationally as well. Legal issues around setting up a business should not be ignored. Apply for a business name, register the company, get corporate tax file number (ABN), find a good accountant and buy an accounting package.

But the big one that most people don’t think about is look after your intellectual property. Apply for a trademark over your logo.

Contracts are important. Don’t move a muscle until you have a contract with your supplier. I didn’t have a tight contract with my first supplier and as a consequence found the styling of my wallet was being replicated – and sold – with the supplier’s own fabric around it.

In my experience, it is also a mistake to underestimate the benefits of a physical outlet for your product – a bricks and mortar vehicle. Nothing beats the ability to touch and feel your product.

My overall objective from the outset was that I did not necessary want to remain hands on – forever

5. Respect social media

You hardly need a Trade Practices Act to keep retailers and manufacturers honest when you have social media. Be honest in how you describe your product, the quality and the images that portray it. If you get these two wrong, your business can be destroyed overnight by social media postings. Make sure everything you put out there is open to scrutiny and you are fully accountable because customers are going to call you on everything – so you have to be prepared!


Anne-Hurley-Leaders-in-HeelsAnne Hurley

Anne Hurley is the Founder and CEO of James&Co, an online boutique selling designer faux leather jackets and accessories. Anne established James&Co in 2012 with a strong humanitarian philosophy, supporting cruelty-free fashion and directing a percentage of profits to mental health initiatives for young people. James & Co’s products are made without leather, fur, wool or silk and are accredited by Peta to carry the ‘Peta-approved Vegan’ logo. Under Anne’s leadership, the business has expanded into international markets, and is now selling with great success into Australia, the US and the UK.