M&S is running 26 GCP programmes across 14 countries

M&S is running 26 GCP programmes across 14 countries

Marks & Spencer says it has seen an improvement in worker health issues in Cambodia - and the subsequent business benefits - since a new healthcare project was launched last year as part of its Global Community Programme.

This week the UK retailer revealed the first results of the programme, one of ten focus priorities within its Plan A sustainability strategy. Its aim is to bring greater clarity and a more focused approach to the way it partners with organisations for a social, environmental, and business return within its supply chain.

To date, there are 26 programmes running across 14 countries, involving 35 partners. For general merchandise, areas cover sustainable cotton production in India, financial literacy and inclusion for garment workers in India, health in factories in Cambodia, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, India and China, and health for farm workers in Kenya.

Cambodia worker health
In particular, the report highlighted the achievements M&S has made in Cambodia with regards to the health of garment workers. The country has been hit by an industry-wide spate of faintings since 2011.

M&S partnered with international health organisation Project Hope and NPO the Reproductive Health Association of Cambodia (RHAC), and found the faintings could be related to poor nutrition, potential health issues such as anaemia, and lack of adequate health service access and maternal health knowledge.

M&S said it implemented a HealthWorks project, which ran for 18 months from 2012 to 2014 and involved seven factories and 14,000 workers. The work involved increasing employee knowledge on health issues, increasing access to quality health services in factories, improving the knowledge of professional health staff, and improving factory management and policy environment regarding health in the workplace. This was through a series of training sessions.

As a result, the retailer said it has seen a reduction in anaemia through medication with 60% of women workers, a 40% increase in workers accessing health clinics, a 5% reduction in absenteeism, and a 7% increase in production efficiency. M&S said it has also seen no instances of faintings in the seven factories it worked with.

Speaking at a Plan A event this week, M&S's head of responsible sourcing Louise Nicholls, said: "Lots of work has gone into the Global Community Programme since we announced its launch last year. We had fantastic best-kept secrets that we had had for a long time. And these were at the bottom of what we were doing to run our commitments around responsible sourcing. Often they were problems, root causes, that we got involved in because they were beyond the farmgate, or beyond the factory gate. But in order to drive a more resilient supply chain, we needed to address them."

These have been addressed under three buckets: Environment; Well-Being; and Livelihoods. And Nicholls says the GCP team has spent the last 12 months working on a framework to asses both existing and new projects.

"These were about driving a more resilient supply chain, and driving that in a way that allows the people in our supply chain to become more empowered, and the communities in which they operate. It's helped us really focus that the funding we're putting in is going to the right places. It was about making sure we were setting in place some real social impact indicators."

Sustainable cotton in India
Also highlighted in the first update was M&S's work on sustainable cotton production in India, in which it partnered with the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) and WWF.

With the WWF, the pair work with around 18,500 farmers in India who are BCI certified. The work began in 2009 and in the 2010 cotton season, the project produced its first harvest of Better Cotton.

At present, M&S says many of its garments are made from cotton sourced in India, and that it is aiming to deliver 50% of cotton from more sustainable sources by 2020. In its last Plan A update in June, the retailer said around 32%, almost a third, of its cotton is now grown to BCI standards.

As part of its GCP programme, M&S has been working with BCI and WWF to reduce the environmental and social impact of cotton production, by reducing the use of water and chemicals in cotton farming in India, introducing safety measures for cotton pickers, and educating workers on health.

The benefits of this work, M&S says, have included a 114% increase in the net income of farmers in the Warangal and Karimnagar regions. These farmers are using 22% less commercial fertiliser, 18% less chemical pesticides, and 16% less water.

"More sustainable products are available to M&S customers as a result of this project," the retailer noted in its update.

Financial literacy in India
Also in India, M&S has been working with social enterprise Geosansar to provide garment workers with practical financial education, enabling them to open and use a bank account.

Since the project began in August 2012, around 15,626 workers have received financial training, during 115 training sessions across 27 factories in Bangalore, Ludhiana, Tirupur, Coimbatore, Delhi-NCR and Chennai.

As a result, over 31,000 bank accounts have been opened by workers and others in the communities surrounding the factories.

This, M&S says, means workers are able to save and manage day-to-day finance better, as well as keep money safe. In terms of business benefits, the retailer says workers are better able to manage their financial life, and therefore, the financial supply chain is more resilient.

"Workers having bank accounts significantly reduces factory HR costs in disbursing salaries, thus increasing business profitability. Factories also benefit from increased productivity and decreased absenteeism," M&S noted in its report.

The project resulted in a 20% increase in workers' knowledge and understanding of banking systems and how to work a bank account. The take up was particularly high amongst women, with 30% having an account following the training.

Click here to view the full report.