Louise Nicholls is in charge of setting and monitoring the working conditions standards for all the factories and farms producing Marks & Spencer (M&S) food, across 30 sourcing countries.
This year she and her colleagues will organise and chair eight conferences across the world for more than 900 M&S suppliers to help them enact ethical trade practices throughout the supply chain
A passion for product
Louise's links with ethical trade began in 2001, when she was asked to help write the annual M&S ETI report. As she began pulling all of the different threads together, she found the subject fascinating, and with M&S's encouragement she soon became the Ethical Trade Manager for M&S food. She says her current role, as head of the team, is perfect for her because it combines her existing passion for product with her interest in how and where things made - in particular, the impact that has on the people producing it and the communities they live in.
M&S joined ETI in 1998, and at that time Louise remembers there being a generally held belief across businesses that ethical trade was mainly an issue in ‘far flung countries'. As part of its ethos, M&S has always believed that looking after people working directly or indirectly for the company makes really good business sense and has purposefully chosen to work with like-minded suppliers. However, upon joining ETI, M&S began to realise that sourcing issues not only affected people in their supply chain overseas, but also affected those producing every single product that they sold.
In future, ethics should be as important as quality for all businesses.
In the next ten years Louise hopes that ethical trade won't just be an ‘add-on' but a fundamental part of how people do business.
In future ethics should be as important as quality for all businesses. You wouldn't sell something that wouldn't meet your quality standard. Likewise you shouldn't sell something that doesn't meet your ethical standard.
The message is certainly spreading within M&S as Louise finds that more and more buyers are informed and vocal about labour standards - not just the members of the specialist technical team.
Contact with flower workers prompts urgent changes
Having traveled extensively with her work, Louise has dozens of milestone stories to tell. In particular she recounts a visit to Kenya in 2003. After a number of serious allegations regarding the treatment of female workers on flower farms in Kenya, Louise was one of a delegation organised by ETI that traveled out to hear workers' testimonies. Sitting in a hot and sweaty hotel room with the other trade union, NGO and business representatives, she heard 50 personal stories which she says ‘no one could have failed to be moved' by. From this meeting the stakeholders agreed on a series of changes that urgently needed to be made. This included worker committees and gender committees being set up to give the women a forum to speak candidly about their concerns.
Returning to Kenya 18 months after the initial meeting, she was amazed at how far the women had come: "They had totally embraced their new-found rights and not only had a long list of issues that they wanted to resolve - but also a long list of issues that had already been resolved." In just 18 months, huge progress had been made.
It was great to see the changes in Kenya. What a difference it has made to those women's lives.
Of this success she says:
If committees are set up in the right way with worker training, and the issues are listened and responded to by management, they can really empower a workforce. It was great to see the changes in Kenya. What a difference it has made to those women's lives.
Louise is clear that within ethical trading, auditing is only ever part of the answer: "The more we can do to communicate, run conferences and bring people together to talk and share experiences through case studies, the better." One such conference had a huge effect on a supplier who was repeatedly failing to meet M&S's standards despite repeated offers of advice, help and resources. As a last attempt to resolve the issue, she invited the supplier to a conference and to sit and listen to other suppliers talking about issues they have faced and how they have resolved them.
Louise describes their reaction to the conference as 'Having their eyes opened.' Having heard how other people had resolved their issues, the supplier in question was left feeling ‘embarrassed' that they were not looking after their own workforce. She describes how they went home, spent all night reading the workbook from M&S and deciding what they needed to do. After a frantic week of fast action, "they had moved heaven and earth, and their factory was a completely different place."
Louise says dealing with issues can be frustrating sometimes, but any frustrations are completely outweighed as ‘the light bulb comes on' and suppliers come to realise that their workforce is their most important asset. it is a success to be celebrated.
When she looks back over the last decade she can see that these successes add up and there is a huge amount of which to be proud.
Consumers have a key role to play
Consumers can also help push ethical trade further up the agenda, according to Louise. She says that, as a mother of three, she knows herself how hard it can be to scrutinise every purchase. "The answer is that you need the brand to do the homework - and in order to do that we need to keep asking leading questions which will push people into action: We need to ask where and how their products have been made, and how they know that. Only then can consumers make a bigger difference."
Asked if she thinks her work is making a difference, Louise says "Absolutely. You couldn't do this job if you didn't feel it's making a difference. It's a great job and it excites me. There's still so much more we can do."