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Today has been declared Fashion Revolution Day in support of a campaign calling for greater transparency in the clothing industry following the catastrophic fire in the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh in April 2013. Whilst M&S and our suppliers had no involvement in those tragic events, the response to Rana Plaza has since created a greater focus on clothing supply chains and raised important questions across the industry about how the clothes we all wear are made and sourced. 

Back in 2009, we were one of the first companies to publish a set of Global Sourcing Principles - a comprehensive set of standards covering every element of workers’ rights and working conditions, including pay, overtime and safety. We have updated them several times since then and all of our suppliers must meet these standards in order to work with us - all of our factories are subjected to comprehensive, annual third party audits to ensure they do. We also have regional offices in all the key areas we source from and our local teams regularly visit the factories to ensure our standards are upheld. 

M&S plays an important role in the clothing industry in Bangladesh - we source clothing from around 60 factories there, some of whom we have been working with for 15 years. We know the name of every single factory that supplies us, when it was last visited, who was there and what the standards are in that factory. Whilst this might sound obvious, this is not common practice across the clothing industry. We believe, however, that this is absolutely crucial to ensuring that the standards we expect from our suppliers are maintained. 

We were one of the first companies to sign the Bangladesh Accord in 2013, and we already assessed all of our factories for fire and electrical safety. It has also always been our policy to source from single occupancy locations, so we can inspect and audit every part of the building to evaluate all the working conditions.  

I’m really proud of the collaborative partnerships we have with all of our suppliers, not just in Bangladesh but across the 50 countries we source from, and we work closely with them to improve things for the better. From time to time, our local teams may find something which isn’t up to scratch or an audit might raise a cause for concern.  We have a really clear course of action in such circumstances. The crucial thing is that we don’t immediately cease working with that supplier – such an approach is not going to drive long term, sustainable change. Instead, we work with the factory owner to help make improvements, and one of our regional compliance managers will draw up a corrective action plan and support the factory in following it. We believe we have an important role to play in raising standards across the industry, and this collaborative approach is a key part of that.

Whilst these standards are central to the way we do business, we are not just concerned with ensuring a bare minimum. Under our Global Community Programme, we are working on a huge number of initiatives aimed at empowering our supply chain workers to improve their business and lives. These include projects and training to improve knowledge and skills in areas like health and nutrition, financial management, sanitation, childcare, education, employability and community leadership. But a list of projects is almost meaningless without a comprehension of their impact. Last year, I blogged about how we were trialling the use of Labor Link technology to carry out anonymous mobile phone surveys. We have now surveyed over 75,000 workers in five countries, and the surveys have become an important tool in evaluating and assessing the impact of the programmes and training we have put in place. In India, for example, we used a Labor Link survey to measure the impact of our financial literacy and inclusion programme. To give you an example of our findings, a pre programme survey showed 59% of workers surveyed had access to a bank account, with a post programme survey showing that this had risen to 79% of workers.  We also learnt that the take up of bank accounts was especially impressive among women participants, with account ownership rising from 44% to 74%. So we had reliable evidence that our progamme was working and having an impact.

The surveys are also an excellent source of information that we believe can now complement our audit programme. In China, we are trialling the surveys to gather real time data from workers on specific compliance areas such as working conditions, hours and wages. We have also used them to help us with knowledge and fact finding, such as in Bangladesh, where surveys showed that a significant number of workers’ families didn’t have birth certificates, so we devised a registration process with a local authority for workers to register themselves and their children to get them. 

Our rigorous approach to ethical standards goes far beyond ensuring mere compliance. It is about collaboration and empowerment – we understand that when people are treated with respect, work in decent conditions and earn fair rates of pay, both they, their families and their companies benefit. Ultimately, our customers benefit too, as they can have the peace of mind knowing that we are sourcing our products in the right way.

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