Efforts to increase supply chain transparency should include closer collaboration and partnerships with suppliers, an industry event has heard.

The issue has assumed greater importance following the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory building earlier this year, in which more than 1,100 people lost their lives.

But many of the factors that contributed to this disaster, including corruption, ignorance and low working standards, are still commonplace, according to speakers at a recent event organised by sustainability and ethics consultants Responsible Trade Worldwide (RTW).

As a result, retailers are increasingly looking to establish partnerships with their suppliers that promote sustainability and ethical working practices.

At present, large retailers can easily exceed 100,000 plus suppliers, and therefore a scalable approach is required. 

As Jo Webb, the head of stakeholder relations for Sedex and member of the UN Global Compact Supply Chain Sustainability Advisory Group, explained: "Risks increase further down the supply chain - whilst at the same time the capacity to address those risks decreases - it is the iceberg of non-compliances lurking beneath the surface. Focusing on first-tier suppliers only is not enough.

"Collaboration is key. Some of the chronic supply chain issues we are seeing are endemic and no one company can solve them on their own. Duplication is still prevalent.

"However, if companies can treat sustainability as non-competitive issues and work together to drive convergence then more time and effort could be spent on addressing issues rather on commissioning constant audits to differing requirements," she continued.

Major retailers are now taking action, identifying the challenges with their suppliers so that they can tackle them together, and offering greater equality to workers by encouraging open conversations at all levels.

Louise Herring, ethical trading manager of supermarket retailer Sainsbury's, said: "We have been working with our suppliers to identify the root causes of labour issues as part of our 20/20 strategy. One example is women's education and access to reproductive health, which can be a major barrier in some developing nations.

"At supplier-level, our training programmes are helping women workers to understand the options available to them so that they can pursue a career and improve their standard of living".

Assessing the transparency and ethics of a supply chain to demonstrate progress and commitment has used auditing as the primary tool for decades.

But it often causes overlapping of data, and can be open to bias and take considerable time to process before any action can be taken.

Alternatives include increased third-party site visits and consumer apps that highlight the financial and environmental cost of their products.