Marks & Spencer has published an interactive map that reveals for the first time 690 of the British department store’s clothing and home-goods suppliers. The online tool debuted on Thursday as part of the retailer’s annual report—its first under new CEO Stephen Rowe, who took over the reins from Marc Bolland in April. In addition to its 2016 “Plan A” sustainability report—fun fact: about three-quarters of its products now include some kind of eco-friendly or ethical element—Marks & Spencer also issued its inaugural dedicated human-rights report, covering seven salient issues the retailer says it believes it has the greatest influence over: discrimination, freedom of association, living wages, working hours, forced labor, health and safety, and water and sanitation.
NO PLAN B
As a recent signatory of the United Nations Global Compact, a set of 10 principles designed to help businesses take actions that advance social and environmental goals, Marks & Spencer says it is committed to “respecting internationally recognized human rights…throughout [its] business operations, including [its] extended supply chain.”
According to Rowe, the retailer plans to “embed respect for human rights” as part of its business strategy by 2020.
“In the past nine years, we have made good progress on environmental issues through our sustainability program, Plan A, but we recognize there is more to do in understanding and addressing our human-rights impacts,” Rowe wrote in the introduction of the human-rights report. “We know on many of these serious issues we cannot do it alone; we have to work in collaboration with other businesses, civil society and government to encourage responsible and inclusive economic development and greater respect for human rights.”
The “more to do” Rowe mentions may be related to a recent Labour Behind the Label study that criticized the department store for reneging on its promise to promote “fair living wages” for the people who make its clothes.
Six years after Marks & Spencer pledged to, in its own words, “implement a process to ensure our suppliers are able to pay workers a fair living wage,” starting with South Asia by 2015, many of its workers in factories in Sri Lanka, India, and Bangladesh continue to live in “abject poverty,” the workers-rights group said in February.
“It’s great to see that M&S has disclosed its clothing suppliers,” Liana Foxvog, director of organizing and communications at the International Labour Rights Forum, told Ecouterre. “When a company refuses to disclose their suppliers—like unfortunately most apparel brands continue to do—we must ask: what are they hiding?”
Still, Foxvog would like to see Marks & Spencer extend its reach a little more.
“In addition to the initial step of disclosing cut-and-sew factories, we encourage companies to be transparent about where their textiles and cotton come from,” she said. “The cotton industry is plagued with forced labor and yet most apparel companies haven’t disclosed their cotton suppliers.”
Anna McMullen, who helped author the Labour Behind the Label study, echoed Foxvog’s sentiments. Transparency, McMullen told us, isn’t about the quantity of information a brand or retailer provides so much as the quality.
“Marks & Spencer have long confused consumers with clever wording about workers’ rights commitments, so it is great to see that they are now coming out with real information about their supply chain,” she told us. “But it could go much further. Transparency isn’t just about more data—what is needed is data that is useful in measuring whether workers’ rights were respected.”
“We hope that M&S can move on to disclose, for example, average wages, average overtime, whether there is a union and/or [collective bargaining agreement] at the factory, names and contact details for factory management or grievance processes, audit reports and more,” she added. “Only with this sort of data can workers’ be empowered to hold brands to account on their rights in M&S supplier factories.”
In light of all this, Rowe’s remarks in Marks & Spencer’s report seem almost prescient.
“We are still learning on this complex topic and I’m sure we will learn more from the feedback on this report,” he wrote.