Modern Slavery and Supply Chain Ethics


The ILO (International Labour Organization) produced a report in September 2017 on Global Estimates of Modern Slavery: Forced Labour and Forced Marriage. The statistics regarding forced labour and human trafficking in the report are deeply disturbing. It estimates 24.9 million people in forced labour globally, 1 in 4 of which are children. The vast majority of these people work in the private sector (domestic work, construction and agriculture predominantly) rather than industries perceived to carry greater risk like the commercial sex industry. 

Three years ago, the UK passed the Modern Slavery Act 2015 to recognise the critical importance of protecting individuals from forced labour and human trafficking. In part this bill requires all businesses over a certain value to adhere to the Act and ensure best practice in their manufacture and supply chains. In turn, the level of responsibility has increased for smaller companies that supply those big businesses to ensure they have taken every practical step to ensure these protections for all workers linked to their procurement strategy – however distantly.  

So where does a SME like trifle* begin to ensure best practice and ethical responsibility amongst their suppliers? Over the last few months, trifle* have undertaken an investigation of our most regular suppliers and developed a new strategy and policy to ensure that we ask the right questions of all future suppliers. In line with The Ten Principles of the UN Global Compact, we have renewed our commitment to ‘upholding our responsibility to people and planet.’

Our suppliers range from the small independent retailer to the mass market giants, from workspace specific furniture suppliers to high street retailers for all. We started with a sweep of their websites to look for codes of conduct or policies there. Some large suppliers especially have a clearly developed policy and they publish it on their homepage. Ikea UK for example has a Modern Slavery Statement for all to read that fully explains the Ikea Way of Purchasing Products and Services (IWAY) and their commitment to ‘strive to be a leading voice in the fight against modern slavery’. While this is specifically for the UK and Ireland where the Act is enforced, their People and Planet Positive initiative is a global sustainability and ethical strategy and easy to find online. West Elm go a social step further and have a whole YouTube channel of videos, many of which are dedicated to their commitment to ‘fair labor practices’ and ‘sustainable relationships’. 

We were really reassured that the smaller firms are also doing their utmost to ensure the ethics of their supply chain. Some, like Rockett St George, are fully aware of the Modern Slavery Act and, using ILO Conventions as a guide have policy in place. Others, like Rose & Grey although not doing so in response to official legislation, seem to be doing so instinctively. These smaller companies that we contacted wrote to us of family values and a vigilant approach to interviewing potential suppliers, factory visits and choosing brands committed to maximising their positive impacts on society. Where appropriate, our trade partners are members of organisations that show their promise to ensure safe and fair practices throughout their manufacturing processes and supply chains. Simon Goff of FLOOR_STORY, a business that is registered under the Good Weave label says, ‘This (the need to be under the Good Weave label) is really simple for us, it ensures our projects are free from child labour, working conditions are good and fair wages are paid.’  

Not everyone got back to us. We know people are busy. We understand that it’s easy to ignore an email if you are not sure of the answer and who to ask. We know many of our suppliers are SMEs like us and will not have the resources or the legal team to put together these policies and the Modern Slavery Act does not apply to companies with a turnover below tens of millions of pounds. However, we believe that like the companies mentioned above that most will be ensuring best practice instinctively and we will continue to have the conversation with them until we are reassured of that.