Tesco has halted production of charity Christmas cards at a Chinese factory after a note was found, purportedly from prisoners claiming they were "forced to work against our will" and urging UK consumers to "help us notify [a] human rights organisation".
The note was discovered by six-year-old Florence Widdicombe when she was writing cards to her schoolmates. The missive, inserted into a card featuring a picture of Santa and a kitten, called on the recipient to contact journalist Peter Humphrey, who was himself imprisoned in China four years ago.
Tesco responded immediately, ceasing production at Zheijiang Yunguang Printing until it concludes an investigation, after which the supermarket said it would delist the supplier should it have transgressed. The cards are sold in packs costing £1.50, with much of the proceeds going to British Heart Foundation, Cancer Research UK and Diabetes UK.
PR luminary Mark Borkowski acknowledged the promptness of Tesco’s response, noting that a few years ago its crisis management function would not have been so agile.
"But the question is: what the hell is their supply chain doing?" he told Campaign. "It creates a bigger question about the very country where many companies are sourcing a large quantity of what they are selling in the UK. There’s not enough scrutiny on the very area of work that demands the greatest scrutiny, because it delivers economically.
"At the end of the day, people are struggling and austerity is a killer, while Tesco is facing massive competition on price from the likes of Lidl and Aldi."
The irony that Tesco’s cards are sold to raise money for charity but are produced in a country renowned for questionable human rights was not lost on Borkowski: "If you talk about purpose, you can no longer use it as virtue-signalling gibberish."
Meanwhile, Andrew Bloch, founder and managing partner of consumer PR agency Frank, said there is "an expectation for brands to communicate with purpose and ensure their values, proposition and behaviour meets consumer perceptions and expectations".
He continued: "Their mission needs to be their social calling, not just copy on their website or a paragraph hidden in their annual report. Brands need to address these expectations if they are to effect real change and avoid damaging their reputation."
In a statement, Tesco said: "We abhor the use of prison labour and would never allow it in our supply chain. We were shocked by these allegations and immediately suspended the factory where these cards are produced and launched an investigation. We have also withdrawn these cards from sale while we investigate.
"We have a comprehensive auditing system in place and this supplier was independently audited as recently as last month and no evidence was found to suggest they had broken our rule banning the use of prison labour. If a supplier breaches these rules, we will immediately and permanently delist them."