The fire at Rana Plaza, Bangladesh in early 2013 raised major questions over the sourcing policies employed by global manufacturers and retailers. Although the disaster specifically related to the fashion industry, there have been concerns in all sectors about wages and working conditions of suppliers in remote locations in emerging parts of the world. Not only are there labour issues – question marks hang over the environmental standards of suppliers, raising worries that some manufacturers are happy to out-source production to so-called ‘pollution havens’.

Although many responsibilities are now out-sourced by manufacturers, it is unacceptable that ethics should be amongst them. At least for the major brands, lobby groups and consumer power are major factors in ensuring that acceptable standards are adhered to, whether a production location is in Germany or in Laos. However, this applies only to a proportion of the market, with many manufacturers able to hide behind the anonymity of complex and opaque supply chains. The response by responsible manufacturers has been to audit their suppliers to make sure that they come up to acceptable standards. Even these audits have come in for criticism recently, not least because they failed to show up the shortcomings of the Rana Plaza industrial complex.

In many people’s minds, the Rana Plaza incident characterises the problems of globalisation – the so-called exploitation of cheap labour to supply rich Westerners with a $3 pair of jeans. This is a very dangerous perception, and one that could have real implications for the global economy.

Amidst the outrage  which incidents like this create, it is very easy to forget the immense positive contributions of global supply chains. Without them, many hundreds of millions of people would not have been lifted out  of poverty around the world. The employment which has been created in the developing world has had a positive on standards of living, and acted to integrate many countries into  the global economy, raising standards of governance and human rights.

Corporate and social responsibility should not be something that global companies – manufacturers, retailers or logistics suppliers should be scared of. Supply chain transparency is being embraced by companies such as Hewlett Packard, Flextronics and in the retail sector Tesco’s, who recognise their responsibility to the work force in developing countries. In fact not only their work force but also the environmental practices of their suppliers.

I am a passionate believer in globalisation, free markets and liberalisation.  However we must be aware that the case for global supply chains has not yet been won. There are plenty of groups who are looking to roll back the progress which has been made, and protectionism is on the rise. If we do not rise to this challenge by demonstrating the massive societal as well as economic benefits of supply chains, many of the positive achievements of globalisation could soon be reversed.