Why building trust with suppliers is key for Whitbread

The procurement boss at Whitbread says building trust with suppliers is the best way to manage risks and combat modern slavery. 

Speaking at the CIPS Virtual Conference 2020, Simon Leigh, group director of procurement and supply chain at Whitbread, said the firm had been building trust with suppliers over time.

He said: “It's very important to build really good relationships with suppliers, not just those PPE suppliers providing the products to get through this Covid situation. But ongoing across all of the high-risk areas.”

Leigh said ethical PPE sourcing and contract labour in food, construction, warehouses and laundries were high-risk areas.

“If you can't build trust with your suppliers, then you don't get the right dialogue, you don't get the right level of conversation, and you end up in a position where you can't help them manage some of the risks, and they end up making bad decisions.” 

Due to Covid-19, the industry is “facing layer upon layer of additional complexity” around supply chains, which wouldn't typically be happening, he said.

“We are dealing in desperate and uncertain times, and that just provides a platform, unfortunately, for people to abuse it. I think we're looking through more lenses than we might have typically been through, far beyond financial pressures and typical risks you'd have to manage.”

He explained that “when you overlay economic disruption and pressure on businesses and individuals, you get a situation where businesses are quite desperate to survive, and they then start trading off”.  

“It becomes a series of potentially unpalatable choices, and that's where people can fall into vulnerable groups,” he warned. 

Leigh cited Whitbread’s Force for Good programme, which enabled the due diligence and clarity needed to bring to light potential risks.

He said the programme “focuses on everything from human trafficking, modern slavery, to working conditions, and ethical sourcing sustainability. 

“It's effectively where our responsible sourcing programme hangs from.” 

Whitbread’s supply chain is “complex” with potential contract labour risks ranging across the extended supply chain of food and beverages, construction of hotels and restaurants, warehousing, and hotel laundry services. 

During Covid, Whitbread has also directly procured PPE from China using their sourcing centre in Shanghai, typically buying large volumes of face masks, gloves, face shields and perspex screens.

Leigh said this was a new category with new suppliers so the team was “focused on transparency, and knowing what we were getting”. 

“More importantly around knowing where it comes from is actually going to see it, so the team went to China for a series of ethical audits, ensuring that they're visiting the physical factories,” he added.

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