UK supermarket brand George at Asda is on a journey to a more sustainable supply chain through its Responsible Retail programme. Lynne Tooms, senior director of quality and sourcing, explains why retailers need to understand more about where their products come from and the challenges faced by suppliers.

During her 11 years at George, part of US retail giant Wal-Mart Stores, Tooms says she has seen "a huge change in the sourcing and buying process". The trend right now, she believes, is to reduce lead times because customers are demanding more flexibility and choice from the industry. 

While George is looking for more production closer-to-home, it is also staying with its long-term global partners. The retailer works with suppliers in almost 20 countries, with China, Bangladesh, India, Turkey and Sri Lanka making up around 85% of its overall sourcing.

As part of efforts to reduce lead times and have what Tooms describes as in country 'people skill', George acquired the sourcing division of its biggest supplier, GAAT, two years ago. At the time of the purchase, GAAT worked with more than 80 manufacturers to manage garment production on behalf of George in key locations such as Turkey, Sri Lanka and Egypt.

"It wasn't necessarily about manufacturing skill, it gave us true sourcing skill in country, which has really helped again to reduce lead time, but also be at the needle point," she explains.

A need for transparency 
The industry, Tooms believes, is moving away from the traditional buying process, with retailers trying to understand more about their supply chains and the challenges suppliers face.

"There's one thing wanting to know it [the supply chain] and the other part is really listening and understanding it when you know that," she explains.

Over the last year, George has been working to be 'Better together' with its suppliers, after carrying out a survey focusing on engagement and communication as well as what the retailer can do to be a valued partner. "I don't underestimate the word partner, or partnership, that's why we say we're on a journey to it. We're not there yet, but we've got the right intent to get there with our key suppliers," Tooms explains.

Last year, George at Asda also decided to start auditing its secondary tier suppliers, including embroidery facilities as well as printing and packaging factories. Although this has created challenges because these plants had not been inspected before, Tooms says the group is working with its suppliers through that process.

"It's about getting to know our suppliers more, but it's [also] about making sure you know what you're dealing with."

There's another reason for doing this too. While buyers and retailers want to make sure they have the right programmes in their supplier factories, the reality is that the number of 'great' facilities globally is becoming smaller and smaller. And if everyone is trying to compete to have production in the same factories, the only thing it comes down to is partnership, she believes. 

Although Tooms says this is a positive because retailers try to raise the bar from a factory perspective, there is the challenge for retailers to work together as there are lots of independent audits.

Responsible retail 
Going forward, the work continues with George's Responsible Retail initiative. "We're looking at a three to five year journey, ensuring that we're engaging on the key industry issues and what's right for George and the customers," she notes.

And communication is a key part of George's Responsible Retailing programme. Last year, the company launched its new supplier website to encourage regular dialogue between them. This, Tooms adds, provides George suppliers with a toolbox of how to operate with the retailer.

But it also enables George to talks to its partners about events, things that have gone well within the press, or if their product has been recognised. "As an internal tool with our suppliers, it has really helped step-change that communication," she explains.

George's Lean initiative has also helped improve communication, but between supplier employers and workers. Tooms says it's about factory owners upskilling workers by recognising the work and training done by their staff, and seeing the benefits of this for the business as a whole. "For us, it's about making sure we've got a sustainable supply chain for the future. It's a real three-way win-win."

The retailer has introduced its Lean programme into 31 factories across Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, and is looking to roll it out through more countries.

Indeed, style, price and quality are no longer enough, Tooms says, adding that the equation also involves making sure garment workers are treated fairly and paid a good wage, while also reducing the impact on the environment.

Responsible sourcing is about knowing where products are made and under what conditions, being able to understand what takes place in a retailer's supply chain, making workers engaged, and ensuring a business has quality items from a sustainable source.

"Leading companies are making responsible sourcing part of their DNA," she explains. "They are training people across the whole of the business, and setting a clear strategy on how they expect their company to operate and what they require from their supplier base. And transparency should be at the heart of any responsible sourcing programme."

Transparency is key to any responsible sourcing initiative. "If transparency isn't occurring in the supply chain, it means that you are in danger of not having a responsible sourcing chain."

She adds: "Transparency these days is not a threat to anybody's business. It's how we can do business better. It demonstrates that we've got nothing to hide and it will actually strengthen any commercial relationship."

Future of susainable sourcing
"Mapping out the future of responsible sourcing is a real challenge," Tooms says. "With what we know and understand today, responsible sourcing in the next five to ten years needs to move beyond the classic compliance based approach with audits. We need to evolve our overall approach with the total supply chain."

But, she notes, demands are constantly changing. The world's population is forecast to increase from 7bn to 9bn over the next 40 years, which drives a need for 50% more energy and food as well as 30% more water. These are new challenges that will need to be addressed by the supply chains of the future.

"Responsible sourcing needs to be part of every company's DNA right through the supply chain, 365 days of the year," she emphasises. "It needs to drive a real business benefit for everybody. It is no longer a sense of obligation, but a sense of opportunity for all to make a big difference."