When sustainable doesn’t mean ethical

I freely admit that I spent the early years of my lighting journey on the wrong side of ethical manufacturing. I knew plenty about lamps, but nothing about the people who made them, or the real conditions in Asian factories.


I made lots of ignorant and naive errors – until I personally witnessed exploitation in factories making bulbs for famous western brands. (You can read that story here).


Those experiences shaped my career and my thinking, and radically changed my approach to business. If I’d not seen these things with my own eyes, well-lit would be a very different company.


Ten years on, you might think things would be different. And in some ways you’d be right. Consumers are demanding transparency, and you’d be hard pressed to find a company that doesn’t talk about sustainability – because sustainability sells.


The higher the price point, the greater the need for brands to look socially-responsible – but their job is made easier because terms like ‘ethical’, ‘sustainable’ and ‘green’ have no legal definition. Hence the phenomenon of green-washing, which I cover here.


Unfortunately, sustainability and ethics aren’t quite the same thing. A brand can tick every box for the climate and the circular economy, and still act in ways that most consumers would find entirely unacceptable.


Whether from ignorance, laziness, or simply turning a blind eye, lighting brands too often leave people out of the conversation. Not the ‘team’ with LinkedIn profiles and a desk at HQ, but the people in the Asian factories where the vast majority of LED bulbs are made. If they never mention the welfare of this workforce, you can be pretty sure it’s not at the top of their agenda: and equally sure it won’t be until it starts to affect their profits.


The plain fact is that nearly all LED bulb brands are totally detached from the day-to-day realities of bulb production. Buyers will travel to a trade show such as the Hong Kong Lighting Show, meet up with manufacturers, and send a box of samples for testing. If the price is right, a slick and impressive factory inspection will be arranged. A limo will be sent. Happy smiling workers, great lunch, clean factory. It all looks great.


It’s painfully obvious that these tours only show what the factory owners want buyers to see – and maybe what the buyers want to see as well. How hard are they really going to look when there’s a great deal on offer, and maybe a tasty bonus at the end of it?


Meanwhile, back at HQ, the marketing department gets busy splashing ‘responsibly-made’ all over the products, when no-one has a clue about the bulb-makers’ wages, the hours they have to work, or the working and living conditions they have to endure.


I believe brands have a moral and ethical obligation to take a long hard look at conditions in the factories they use. To carry out proper inspections, ask difficult questions, and even turn up unannounced.



After all, we live in a world where Apple, the richest company in the world, only introduced a ‘human rights policy’ in September 2020. On the very same day, a video was going viral on Chinese social media. Shot at a technology company near Shanghai, it shows hiring managers handing out ID cards by tossing them on the factory floor. The newly-hired workers were literally made to grovel.


I’ve seen behaviour like this with my own eyes. I’ve seen and spoken to migrant workers, forced to travel long distances from their homes and families to find jobs, living and working in appalling conditions, with pitifully low pay and gruelling hours. Exploitation is still common, and ignorance is no longer an excuse.


To be a genuinely sustainable brand means proper oversight and control of every aspect of your supply chain and workforce. Stringent ethical and sustainable policies – and following through on them – will increase the cost of your product. But along with the huge social benefits, you’ll stand to make significant gains in quality, and avoid the risk of reputational damage when bad practice becomes public knowledge.


Well-lit has ethics and sustainability at its heart. We source materials from sustainable suppliers, we design our products to be beautiful and stand the test of time, and we price them so that high quality products are accessible to more people.


We ensure the workers who make our products receive above average pay and have safe and clean working conditions, and that the factory owners share our values.


Of course not all the responsibility rests on brands. Designers and clients should also make sure that lighting specifications and purchasing are done responsibly and without accidentally supporting rogue manufacturers.


An LED bulb can be stunning to look at and great news for the planet – but exploitation and misery will always take the shine off.


“There is accumulating evidence that consumers are impacted by the perceived sustainability of [a] brand, and further, that consumers are willing to pay a premium for products from a sustainable brand over a non-sustainable competitor brand.” 


–  Matt Johnson PHD, professor at Hult International Business School and founder of neuromarketing blog ‘Pop Neuro’.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.