City Council Promotes Ethical Purchasing

Vancouver city council has granted "approval in principle" to a policy to buy fair-trade agricultural products and to stop purchasing products made in sweatshops. At the December 16 planning and environment committee meeting, COPE Coun. Tim Louis, cochair of the city's ethical-purchasing-policy task force, introduced a motion urging immediate approval of a new purchasing policy and supplier code of conduct. The task force's other cochair, COPE Coun. Raymond Louie, then proposed an amendment granting "approval in principle", subject to a report back from staff in early 2005. Council unanimously approved Louis's motion with Louie's amendment.

Louie claimed there was an "unknown" financial aspect, which is why he wanted staff to examine the issue further. "I want this policy to go forward," Louie said.

NPA Coun. Peter Ladner cited concerns over the cost of compliance. "I don't think the world will become a terribly worse place if we leave this for 60 days," he said.

The motion directs staff to tell suppliers of apparel and certified fair-trade agricultural products that future contracts will require "full disclosure of supplier and subcontractor factory locations". According to a draft staff report, the city spends $1.4 million per year on apparel: 48 percent by the Vancouver police department and 39 percent by fire and rescue services. The city spends $3.7 million per year on food.

"As the chair of the finance committee, I don't want to see taxpayer dollars used to support sweatshops, slave labour, and child labour," Louis said at the meeting. "This policy is going to make an enormous difference to the lives of literally thousands of individuals in Nicaragua and other countries that are negatively impacted by the drop in coffee prices."

The ethical-purchasing policy would permit the city to ask suppliers for proof of compliance with all applicable labour, health, safety, and environmental laws. In addition, the city would be able to arrange inspection of working conditions at any time or request independent verification of compliance.

The supplier code of conduct would set minimum performance standards, including a ban on hiring people under the age of 15 or higher, depending on the jurisdiction's minimum-age law. The city would not sign contracts with suppliers or subcontractors that use "forced, illegal, or prison labour, including indentured or bonded labour".

The code also addresses companies' disciplinary practices, freedom of association for workers, wages and benefits, working hours, discrimination, health and safety, and environmental commitment. City manager Judy Rogers had recommended deferring consideration of the task force's recommendations pending a report back from staff. However, at the December 16 meeting, several task force members urged immediate action.

"We believe what you now have before you is one of the most well-constructed and comprehensive ethical-purchasing policies and supplier code of conduct of any municipality we are aware of," Bill Saunders, president of the Vancouver & District Labour Council, told council. "It will certainly serve as a model for the many other jurisdictions which are sure to follow you."

Oxfam Canada representative Miriam Palacios told council that she experienced firsthand the effects of working as a child in a so-called maquila factory, or assembly plant, in Guatemala. She said more than 30 U.S. municipalities already have ethical-purchasing policies but this would be the first in Canada. "I think the financial implications of this are really modest in comparison to the benefits you're going to gain from that," she said.

Roxanne Cave of the Ten Thousand Villages store told council that she interacts daily with customers who care that a decent living wage is paid to Peruvian coffee farmers, Bangladeshi artisans, and Ghanaian cocoa producers. "The people of Vancouver are global citizens," Cave said. "There is a lot of support for fair trade and for an ethical- and sustainable-purchasing policy."

Dermot Foley, vice-president of Real Assets Investment Management, told council that supplier codes are already in place at dozens of companies, including The Gap, Mountain Equipment Co-op, Nike, Reebok, Hudson's Bay, Adidas, Intel, and Hewlett Packard. Michael Zelmer of the Vancouver Fair Trade Coffee Network said that a 20-percent increase in the cost of coffee on international markets would translate into a per-cup increase of just two to four cents. He suggested this could easily be passed along to consumers buying coffee in a park.

Sister Elizabeth Kelliher, an 85-year-old activist nun, said everyone at the committee meeting knew that corporations generate profits by having children and even adults work for a dollar or less a day under conditions comparable to or worse than slavery. She said it would be "unjust and unethical" to defer the resolution.