Woolworths 'behaved totally unethically': baby carrier designer

The inventor of the Ubuntu Baba baby carrier, Shannon McLaughlin, is encouraging other business owners to speak out about unethical practices at the hands of retailers.
The inventor of the Ubuntu Baba baby carrier, Shannon McLaughlin, is encouraging other business owners to speak out about unethical practices at the hands of retailers.
Image: Supplied

"They brag about ethical trade, but they behaved totally unethically."

Shannon McLaughlin, founder of Cape Town-based Ubuntu Baba, accused Woolworths of blatantly copying the design, colour and names of her Stage 1 and Stage 2 baby carriers and undercutting the price by two-thirds by having them made from cheaper fabric in China.

She was in a bad place when she wrote her now famous "Woolworths, you have some explaining to do" blog on Monday, fearing the loss of her business, but two days later the retailer apologised in person, pulled their "rip-off" baby carriers from their shelves and offered to refund those who’d bought one.

"I am in discussions with Woolworths about what will become of all their carriers now," McLaughlin told SowetanLIVE.

"Their blatant copying was certainly ethically wrong, and I'm far from the only small business they’ve done this to."

McLaughlin said other business owners had told her Woolworths had done the same thing to them.

"I’m encouraging them to speak out. This is the perfect time for them to do so."

Woolworths has presented McLaughlin with a written settlement offer which she is considering, she said.

"I definitely want them to issue a media statement setting out exactly what they did wrong and how they are going to rectify that."

Woolworths apologised in a statement on Wednesday, steering clear of the word "copied", acknowledging only there were "striking similarities" between their Stage 1 and Stage 2 baby carriers and those of the same name made by Ubuntu Baba’s eight employees at a factory in Retreat.

"This is not in line with our values and goes against the very clear policy and creative guidelines we have in place for our design process," the retailer said.

We met with Ubuntu Baba today and have completed our investigation into the allegations of copying. While there are...

Posted by WOOLWORTHS on Wednesday, 9 January 2019

Woolworths denied McLaughlin’s most serious allegations: that a Stage 2 carrier was bought and delivered to a former sourcing administrator at the Woolworths Financial Services Building in Observatory in June 2017, and that three months later the company’s product developer had ordered the Stage 1 carrier and had it delivered to the company’s head office in Cape Town’s CBD.

"Our baby-product developers were NOT responsible for the Ubuntu Baba carrier orders delivered to our Cape Town and Observatory offices - those were ordered by pregnant employees working in pet foods and financial services respectively," the company tweeted.

Woolworths say on their website that innovation and integrity are two of their seven core values.

"We love discovering new ideas, new products and new processes. We enjoy thinking 'out of the box' and finding solutions that benefit the business."

Among the many who posted messages of support for McLaughlin was Stacey Fraser, who suggested that Woolworths should do the following, among other things:

  • Stock the genuine Ubuntu Baba carriers in their stores and online. This way the employees of Ubuntu Baba have a steady stream of orders, job security, pride knowing they are part of making a difference and holding unethical operators to account;
  • Pay all profits made from their version of the Ubuntu Baba carrier to McLaughlin or donate to a children’s charity;
  • Formally apologise to the South African population for undermining entrepreneurs, threatening local jobs and choosing to send manufacturing to China instead of having things made locally; and
  • Woolworths CEO, product and sourcing executives to apologise to all ethical hard-working and loyal Woolworths employees for contradicting the company's stated values.

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