It’s 2022 and like many organisations, we have ambitious plans in place to accelerate our growth in the coming years. In fact, we’re on the cusp of realising many projects that will be transformative for us. This shouldn’t be surprising because, after all, isn’t that what business is all about?
Yes. And no.
In the beginning, which means about 2009, and not 1935 when we first started trading, we realised we needed to do things differently. Our business was at risk, profits were low, colleague morale even lower, and our customers were unimpressed with our products and service.
So, we made some changes. We stopped trying to please shareholders and started to try to make things better for colleagues, customers and the people who make our schoolwear.
With so many areas of concern to address, both in our UK and overseas operations, we took action where we felt we could make an immediate difference. We decided to directly employ colleagues to manage production in our overseas factories. This improved product quality and gave us a “factory floor” understanding of other things we needed to improve in our supply chain.
We began supplying free water filter systems to workers in our Bangladesh factory in 2014. Continuing to this day, our water filter initiative has had a profound impact on the health of workers and their families, undoubtedly helping to save many lives, while also reducing absenteeism. This was swiftly followed by our period poverty initiative, funding the monthly cost of sanitary protection for female workers in our Bangladesh supply chain.
We joined ETI. This important step educated and equipped us to accelerate action in our supply chain. Our partnership with ETI remains critically important to us.
In the UK, we introduced a comprehensive benefits package for everyone, including a cash healthcare benefit, death-in-service cover, interest-free crisis loans, and a non-contributory pension scheme.
At this point, we didn’t talk about sustainability. We spoke about ethics and how we were trying to live our values of care, trust and be better. And hey presto! We saw some positive things happening.
Our sales increased and customer satisfaction scores began improving. Colleagues were happier, less stressed and enjoyed work more, so delivered a much better customer experience.
With each small step, we grew in confidence. In 2015, we became employee-owned. This gave us full control over our business and allowed us to give every colleague a fair profit share.
In the subsequent years, we’ve taken many more small steps forward. In the pursuit of improving workers’ rights, we began establishing Worker Participation Committees at our tier one suppliers (by adopting the ETI Social Dialogue Programme), introduced effective operational grievance mechanisms, funded an anonymous workers helpline, and linked our price discussions with suppliers directly to overseas colleagues’ wages.
ETI opened our eyes to the wider supply chain, which we’ve mapped and shared publicly. Further help from ETI and the International Transport Federation (ITF) in addressing the Seafarers Crisis saw the establishment of their HRDD Toolkit and ultimately led to a constructive dialogue with our logistics providers to try to ensure only ITF-approved vessels carry our goods.
With an increasing focus on safeguarding our planet, we became Planet Mark certified and a certified CarbonNeutral™ business. We even installed a photovoltaic solar panel system on our business premises, too!
Fast forward a few years. While we were definitely onto something good, we wanted to do better. In 2019, we became a B Corporation, which lent clarity, momentum and a global movement of like-minded organisations to our efforts.
Today, we talk about sustainability a lot. We’ve learned that it’s not one initiative, one action, or one outcome. And that it’s hard work. We’ve achieved a lot, but often without a linear route to success. And that’s okay.
Sustainability is at the heart of everything we do and central to our ability to achieve our purpose of growing for the greater good. But it’s not only the right way to do business - it’s a commercial imperative.
We can show you the money, of course. Our Net Promoter Score is 70, signifying great customer loyalty, 100% of colleagues say they’re proud to work for us, colleague happiness and retention are high, and we’ve achieved year-on-year growth for the past decade. Compelling enough for anyone wondering if being sustainable is nothing more than the current buzzword.
So, we’re a business that wants to succeed with some very ambitious goals. But the way we go about achieving those goals matters enormously to us, everyone we work with, our communities, and future generations, too.
Sustainability is a journey of commitment, and a never-ending story of bringing people together to become a force for good.
We’ve only just started our story. In fact, we’re probably on chapter one.