Unethical Behavior and Child Labor in Supply Chains: Willful Ignorance

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Anneke Zwart
Student (University), Netherlands

Unethical Behavior and Child Labor in Supply Chains: Willful Ignorance

Even though many organizations claim to comply to strict policies with regard to human rights such as child labor, a report by Amnesty International has revealed that still a lot of technology companies are linked to child labor. Those companies argue that it is impossible to track the source of their raw materials, and to verify that supplying companies are behaving irresponsible and unethical.
Despite the claims of many organizations to adhere to strict rules and policies about ethics, reports about unethical behavior within organizations' supply chains is still commonplace.
Zane, Irwin and Reczek (2016) claim a possible explanation for this contradiction can be found in the concept of "willful ignorance", referring to organizations not actively researching their supply chains to obtain such information. This phenomenon occurs both in consumer and organizational contexts:
  1. CONSUMER CONTEXT: Consumers tend to – either consciously or unconsciously – neglect information regarding unethical activities within organizational supply chains. Consumers will factor the information about (un)ethical behavior of organizations into their decision making. But they will not further investigate the issue, because the outcomes may be hard to process and lead to negative feelings about purchasing the product/service. In other words, human coping mechanisms make them prefer to remain blind for information that will be hard to deal with.
  2. ORGANIZATIONAL CONTEXT: Organizations tend to ignore information related to unethical behavior in their supply chain for the simple reason of refraining from the possible costly outcomes. Willful ignorance does not mean that organizations will not take actions when reports of unethical behavior are reported. It just means that they will be ignorant if the information has not been revealed yet.
Because of the above, reports by third parties about supply chain activities of organizations are valuable in that it forces them to think about ethical issues. But they do not necessarily spur actual changes in their behavior due to the fact that these reports often contain information about several competing organizations at once. As a result organizations will not feel more or less ethical than their competitors and may not feel a (strong) need to change.

⇒ To what extent do you believe that reports by parties such as Amnesty International are important to spur changes in organizations’ supply chains?

Source: Zane, D., Irwin, J. and Reczek, R.W. (2016) "Why Companies Are Blind to Child Labor" Harvard Business Review

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