Business Law & Compliance

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M&S and ASOS investigation shows firms should take Modern Slavery Act seriously

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Syrian refugee children in Turkey, the BBC found, had been making clothes for UK retailers. Experts have now stepped forward to tell brands of all sizes how serious a breach of the Modern Slavery Act is.

Companies need to take responsibility when such a breach occurs, according to Business and Human Rights Resource Centre’s Danielle McMullan. She said: “It’s not enough to say you didn’t know about it, or that it’s not your fault. You have a responsibility to monitor and understand where your clothes are being made and what conditions they are being made in.”

A perfect example of how firms should act, when taking McMullan’s words into account, is the M&S way. The company immediately responded to the BBC’s unveiling, suggesting it’s findings were “unacceptable and serious”.

“Ethical trading is fundamental to M&S,” it said. “All our suppliers are contractually required to comply with our ‘Global Sourcing Principles’, which cover what we expect and require – especially in terms of how workers are treated. We do not tolerate breaches of these principles and we will do all we can to ensure this does not happen again.”

Its approach will insure its reputation remains intact. After all, brand trust tops the list of sustainability factors, influencing the purchasing decisions of 62 per cent of the globe. M&S addressed its consumers publicly and held on tight to the trust it fostered with its target audience.

“Avoiding the exploitation of vulnerable workers remains a significant challenge for businesses, and retailers in particular,” Matt Crossman, ethical research at Rathbone Greenbank, added. “For a company such as M&S, that has developed a standalone human rights policy and led the way on supply chain auditing and standards, to find itself linked to a breach of the Modern Slavery Act highlights the extent of the problem faced by global apparel supply chains.

“Unfortunately, the sheer scale of the issue, and particularly the layers of sub-contracting, means incidents of this nature are extremely difficult to avoid, despite the best efforts of businesses around the world. As responsible investors we are interested both in the steps taken by companies to manage supply chain risk, and in how Modern Slavery Act incidents such as the one being reported by Panorama are being dealt with. For M&S the easy option was to cut and run, to abandon the suppliers in question and cancel the contracts. However, it has responded swiftly, with an appropriate degree of concern and commitment to change.”

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Crossman added: “Ultimately, the truth is that M&S – and companies alike – can only go so far down the supply chain. The industry must now learn from this exposure, treat all stages of today’s complex and multi-layered supply chains with the same scrutiny, and strive to achieve a greater level of transparency system-wide.”

All businesses should engage with the Modern Slavery Act, Crossman said –something only 27 companies in the FTSE 100 have so far reported doing. With prime minister Theresa May’s vow to eliminate modern slavery still ringing in the ears of her new cabinet, Crossman is encouraging companies to take the issue seriously at every level of the supply chain – and for the government to start delivering on the promises it made.

Image: Shutterstock

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