Tackling slavery requires leadership, strategy and sustained effort

Rebecca Ellinor Tyler is former editor of Supply Management
19 January 2016

The difficulty in eradicating modern slavery from supply chains is summed up in two quotes taken from a recent report by the Ashridge Centre for Business and Sustainability.

The difficulty in eradicating modern slavery from supply chains is summed up in two quotes taken from a recent report (www.ethicaltrade.org/sites/default/files/resources/corporate_approaches_to_addressing_modern_slavery.pdf) by the Ashridge Centre for Business and Sustainability.
The report, Corporate approaches to addressing modern slavery in supply chains: a snapshot of current practice, was produced in association with the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI), a leading alliance of companies, trade unions and NGOs that promotes respect for workers’ rights.
In the first, a head of corporate responsibility talks about internal barriers: “When I joined the company there wasn’t anything formally structured in place – that was what I came in to do. There was a lot of resistance from the buying teams who saw my role as ‘sales prevention’. It took nearly two years – apart from getting all the processes and systems in place – just to get people to understand why you’re doing it – and then the mind-set changed.”
If that wasn’t enough of a challenge, a head of ethical trade comments on the external barriers: “We have quite a big supply base in China but – because the domestic market’s getting big – the attitude is: ‘You’re less than 2% of our business, why should we do what you want us to do?” 
There is also the acknowledgement that it’s not a battle that can be won, as a head of sustainable and ethical sourcing explains: “You’re never going to have a supply chain that’s 100 per cent clean. There’s no such thing. It just doesn’t exist and it’s a fallacy to think that it does. You don’t have boots on the ground in every single factory, and every single part of your supply chain – we’re talking hundreds of thousands of factories.” 
The report, based on interviews with 21 leading brands and retailers, with a further 30 brands participating in a wider survey, explains that there are several drivers for change, not least the legislation introduced in the Modern Slavery Act 2015. 
However, it also states: “Risk to their reputations and brands was agreed by 92% of the retailers and suppliers we surveyed as the main factor driving them to address modern slavery.”
Even so, the companies interviewed all felt that addressing risk to workers was significant. Most took the view that mitigating risks to workers ultimately mitigated risk to the business. And, for many, addressing the risk to workers came about as a very personal response to either seeing first-hand or better understanding the reality of working conditions. 
The report’s key messages include:
• Modern slavery is complex, hidden and challenging to address.
• Companies that have leaders who provide a clear vision and drive on the issue make more progress than those that do not. 
• Companies that align strategy, policies, systems, key performance indicators and training in their response make more progress. 
•  Collaboration is essential, but competitive tensions can be a barrier. 
• Most companies take an audit-led approach to supplier due diligence; however, almost all agreed that audit is particularly ineffective in identifying instances of modern slavery. 
• Building relationships, capacity and trust with suppliers is seen as much more critical.
• Immediate actions must be taken, but significant change can and will come with time if the hard work is sustained. 

The report, Corporate approaches to addressing modern slavery in supply chains: a snapshot of current practice, was produced in association with the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI), a leading alliance of companies, trade unions and NGOs that promotes respect for workers’ rights.

In the first, a head of corporate responsibility talks about internal barriers: “When I joined the company there wasn’t anything formally structured in place – that was what I came in to do. There was a lot of resistance from the buying teams who saw my role as ‘sales prevention’. It took nearly two years – apart from getting all the processes and systems in place – just to get people to understand why you’re doing it – and then the mind-set changed.”

If that wasn’t enough of a challenge, a head of ethical trade comments on the external barriers: “We have quite a big supply base in China but – because the domestic market’s getting big – the attitude is: ‘You’re less than 2% of our business, why should we do what you want us to do?” 

There is also the acknowledgement that it’s not a battle that can be won, as a head of sustainable and ethical sourcing explains: “You’re never going to have a supply chain that’s 100 per cent clean. There’s no such thing. It just doesn’t exist and it’s a fallacy to think that it does. You don’t have boots on the ground in every single factory, and every single part of your supply chain – we’re talking hundreds of thousands of factories.”

The report, based on interviews with 21 leading brands and retailers, with a further 30 brands participating in a wider survey, explains that there are several drivers for change, not least the legislation introduced in the Modern Slavery Act 2015.

However, it also states: “Risk to their reputations and brands was agreed by 92% of the retailers and suppliers we surveyed as the main factor driving them to address modern slavery.”

Even so, the companies interviewed all felt that addressing risk to workers was significant. Most took the view that mitigating risks to workers ultimately mitigated risk to the business. And, for many, addressing the risk to workers came about as a very personal response to either seeing first-hand or better understanding the reality of working conditions. 

The report’s key messages include:

  • Modern slavery is complex, hidden and challenging to address.
  • Companies that have leaders who provide a clear vision and drive on the issue make more progress than those that do not.
  • Companies that align strategy, policies, systems, key performance indicators and training in their response make more progress.
  • Collaboration is essential, but competitive tensions can be a barrier.
  • Most companies take an audit-led approach to supplier due diligence; however, almost all agreed that audit is particularly ineffective in identifying instances of modern slavery.
  • Building relationships, capacity and trust with suppliers is seen as much more critical.
  • Immediate actions must be taken, but significant change can and will come with time if the hard work is sustained.
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