With 20 years of experience across manufacturing, retail and international development to her name, Abi Rushton is well-placed to help steer apparel sourcing strategies of the future.

Through experience gained in CSR and sustainability roles at leading UK retailers Tesco and Marks and Spencer, Rushton has now founded ethical trade and sustainable supply chain consultancy Ethical Expert. She is also chair of Ethical Fashion Forum and a founder member of Cotton Revolutions, the cotton community’s online forum for strategic thinking.

just-style was keen to find out how Ethical Expert plans to work with key brands to improve products and conditions across international supply chains. The first part of the interview focuses on social compliance and asking the questions on issues including compliance, sustainability and sourcing, was just-style news editor Joe Ayling.

just-style (j-s): What were your recent motivations for swapping big business to start up your own ethical fashion consultancy?

Abi Rushton (AR): I saw the need for the clothing industry to get to a level playing field in terms of ethical and environmental issues. Through my years working in this field it has become increasingly clear that real change can only be driven through multi brand collaboration.

In order for collaborations to be fair, balanced and sustainable each partner needs to be up to speed with current learning and best practice. Through ethicalexpert I hope to be able to help build the platform for such long-term collaborations that will move the industry towards more sustainable production.

Abi Rushton, founder of Ethical Expert

j-s: Judging by your sourcing experience with both Tesco and Marks and Spencer, how should retailers approach the area of compliance and sustainability?

AR: One of the biggest challenges facing a large retailer is the size and scale of its own operations and tendency to have teams working in silos. If compliance and sustainability are seen as a separate central function it is very hard to influence buying and sourcing decisions. When compliance and sustainability are seen as an integral part of supply base management and sourcing you can achieve a lot more, faster.

However with the scale and amount of people involved in these functions in large retailers it is a challenge to keep everyone engaged and informed. If you can articulate the business benefit and commercial use case for each function to be more socially compliant and environmentally aware you can achieve more much faster.

j-s: Do you thinking leading high street retailers are doing enough when it comes to social compliance?

AR: There has been a lot of work and investment in social compliance over the last couple of decades. Most high st chains now have a compliance programme.

However some of the major lessons learnt have been that even a large retail group can’t tackle these issues on their own, their level of influence is just not enough without collaboration with other brands. There is much more work to do to ensure good working conditions for textile workers all over the world and I believe we now need a step change in approach to this with much greater collaboration and focus on the commercial benefits of good social conditions.

j-s: Is there a wide degree of variation between the social compliance performance of different chains, and who do you see as the leading players?

AR: The reality is that most high street clothing chains use the same supply chains to make their goods no matter how they are presented or perceived by the consumer. The last decade has seen a lot of movement away from dedicated factory bases to more of a diverse sourcing strategy either through direct sources or by sourcing agents broadening their portfolios.

A few chains such as Marks and Spencer, Gap Inc and Next stand out but then other stores have also done some innovative pilot projects such as New Look and their productivity and wage project with a factory in Dhaka. The real challenge is how to take these learnings to scale across a country and an industry. This is why collaboration is so key to the future of ethical sourcing.

j-s: Having visiting a wide array of apparel producing countries, would you say there is a correlation between cheap labour and exploitation of workers?

AR: In my experience the root cause of a lot of low wage issues is lack of experience and skill of workers and especially middle management. In a lot of producing countries the local management teams have no experience of other ways of working and have no experience of how to improve productivity without simply increasing working hours.

Senior management often understand the top level issues but it is difficult to affect this and empower the people in charge of the factory floor to make change and drive new ways of working.

One of the programmes I developed at Tesco was looking at exactly this issue by working with DFID to develop a plan for a management skills academy in Bangladesh to help up skill local factory management teams in terms of technical production skill and human resource management so that workers get the training they need and proper HR management to enable them to deliver right first time production. This in turn leads to higher profit margins for the factory owners which can be shared with the workers in terms of higher wages creating a win win situation.

j-s: When it comes to ethical sourcing, is it a case of choosing the right country, choosing the right factory, or both?

AR: There are some countries that have made great efforts in this space; Sri Lanka stands out as one example with the Garments Without Guilt programme.

However it’s not as simple as picking your country you do need to evaluate each site you work with. Sometimes it’s not the obvious sites that you would chose; the approach of management is so important you might have a factory in a difficult country with poor results but a really engaged management team. In this case on paper the factory wouldn’t look ethically compliant but with management support you could really make a difference and drive change for workers whilst
developing a good new source of products.

j-s: Where in the world would you identify as having a leading percentage of ethical manufacturing, and which countries need to improve?

AR: As I mentioned Sri Lanka has done some great work in this area helped by the compactness of the industry and geography of the country. All sourcing countries could make improvements in conditions. The least developed countries generally face some of the biggest challenges due to lack of good governance, infrastructure and skill.

But here in UK we still have many labour issues related to domestic and immigrant workers. We are also one of the only countries that don’t have a payment premium requirement for overtime worked so there is no room to be complacent.

j-s: Is social compliance the responsibility of Government, retailers/brands or manufacturers primarily, and is there a sense of 'passing the buck' sometimes?

AR: The influence of brands and retailers can often be overestimated. One brand cannot address systemic issues in a country such as off the book overtime or lack of social insurance. Social compliance is really about compliance with the labour law of the country you’re working with so it’s just about doing what’s required by that countries government.

Without good governance practices by local government labour agencies it can be very challenging to implement effective social compliance programmes.

Abi Rushton can be contacted for further consultation through the Ethical Expert website, or via email (abi.rushton@ethicalexpert.com).