On November 26th, the Secretariat of the United Nations Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI) held a webinar on its Ethical Trading Initiative. The PRI call on investors to incorporate environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors into their investment practices, and to work together for better reporting and disclosure of ESG performance. (KLD is a charter signatory of the PRI. For more information, see the About PRI page at KLD.com.)
The Ethical Trading Initiative is a PRI-led coalition that works for better labor and environmental practices throughout the global supply chain. The Initiative is a recognition that investors alone cannot raise global ESG standards. Real progress demands that manufacturers, distributors and retailers commit to industrywide improvements. Shareholder activists play a vital role in this effort, which requires coordination on a massive global scale.
Speaking to the webinar, Initiative Director Dan Rees explained why companies are willing to participate. "They're driven by the demands of risk management. They're worried about their reputations. But that's not enough. There needs to be a clear business case, and companies need to fully understand the market demand for responsibility on these issues."
Joining Mr. Rees for the webinar were Louise Nichols and Fiona Sadler of British retailer Marks & Spencer, and Lauren Compere of Boston Common Asset Management (BCAM). Each speaker also responded to questions from webinar participants.
The Scope of the Supply Chain
Marks & Spencer is a well-established British retail chain that is a founding ETI member. Louise Nichols and Fiona Sadler described how the company works to sustain an ethical supply chain. It is a dauntingly huge task. Marks & Spencer's supply chain encompasses:
- 35,000 product lines
- 20,000 factories
- 2,000 farms
- 88 source countries
- 55 different languages spoken by suppliers
To manage this vast assemblage, Marks & Spencer has conducted 1,224 supplier audits. The company enforces its supplier code of conduct with on-the-ground support and the sharing of best practices, even among competing suppliers. Marks & Spencer reports to the Ethical Trading Initiative annually. In the spirit of the ETI, the company has also shared its supply chain management expertise, including case studies of key issues, with other retailers.
Globalizing a Local Problem: The Role of the ETI
The Ethical Trading Initiative engages these issues at a systemic level. Mr. Rees explained that the best-run global companies can identify labor issues on their own without intervention from shareholders or customers. However, the complexity of the global supply chain compels a growing number of companies to work together on these issues, Mr. Rees said.
Since its inception ten years ago, the Initiative has grown to include 52 corporate members and 16 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that focus on labor, environmental and product safety issues. This relatively small number belies the influence that leading corporations can have on the broader global economy. In 2007, 38,000 suppliers were operating under workplace codes of conduct, and suppliers had made 55,000 significant improvements to worker health, safety, wages, and hours, said Mr. Rees.
These codes of conduct have made a tangible impact. Mr. Rees said industries that employ some of the world's poorest workers – such as agriculture and the garment and footwear industries – are now paying better and relying less on forced overtime and child labor.
Mr. Rees added, "We need to define and measure what companies could or should do to drive change in the supply chain. We also need to show evidence of improvement and give credit where it's due." This publicity drives growing global awareness of the need to improve conditions for these workers.
Still, there is much to be done. Along with better pay and conditions, Mr. Rees mentioned other urgent needs:
- Too many workers are still denied freedom of association and the right to organize – rights that would allow workers to better advocate for their own interests.
- While more nations now regulate minimum wages, the minimum is too often less than a living wage.
- Ethnic, racial and gender discrimination persists.
- Too many work without formal contracts, leaving them vulnerable to abuse and summary dismissal.
Lauren Compere of BCAM noted that many larger firms in China, in particular, have made progress over the past five years. Problems persist further down supply chains, at small companies that are difficult to monitor. The Initiative, and activist investors, work to engage large manufacturers in better supervising their subcontractors.
The Tools of Engagement: Confrontation and Collaboration
Ms. Compere, who is also affiliated with the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR), said that to have a real impact, shareholder activists must understand the global scope of modern manufacturing. She presented examples of direct confrontation with individual companies as well as activist-led industry-wide initiatives.
In 2007, investors engaged Toyota regarding allegations of abuse in its factories, including reports that it brought guest workers from southeast Asia to Japan to work under sweatshop conditions for far less than minimum wage. Over 20 institutional investors signed on to a letter about this issue, which led to unflattering media coverage and a commitment to reform from Toyota.
BCAM also wrote to Samsung in 2002 about its supply chain, asking them to join the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC). Compere met with Samsung management, and the company established a CSR management process, which includes a committee that reports to the board.
While single-company campaigns have made a difference, multi-stakeholder initiatives can better leverage the strength of activists. For example, in 2008, BCAM and other U.S. social investors wrote to 110 companies concerning the use of child labor in harvesting cotton in Uzbekistan. In their letter, they described the best practices of the most ethical companies. Several major retailers then threatened boycotts of Uzbek cotton, and before the 2008 harvest the Uzbek government announced a plan to prevent children under 15 from participating.
The multi-stakeholder approach works for companies, as well as activists, because it offers economies of scale for costly monitoring and auditing operations. Ms. Compere also emphasized the important role played by Oxfam, Amnesty, Amazon Watch, and other NGOs.
Ms. Compere concluded by saying that shareholder activists need to remember that while labor rights are a global issue, each situation is unique. "Success depends on what's being asked of a company," she said. "Often there are baby steps, and engagement that goes on for years. Sometimes activists decide they're not getting anywhere, and they stop and decide the engagement has been unsuccessful." Indeed, the ultimate success of the Uzbek initiative is still in doubt.
The Business Case for the Ethical Trading Initiative
A webinar participant asked if companies join the Initiative simply to improve their public image. "There's always a risk that companies will join the Initiative to create the appearance that they're actually doing something," Mr. Rees said. "But if they don't do anything, they're asked to leave. The Initiative does its best to hold companies to their commitments. We monitor companies with a tripartite review panel made up of corporate, NGO, and trade union membership."
Participation in the Initiative, which requires third-party oversight and collaboration with other companies throughout the supply chain, is not an act of altruism. Lauren Compere explained why: "The business case for participation is that if companies don't meet high industry standards, they could lose their license to operate." By helping set and maintain these standards, investors and PRI signatories help the global supply chain work for workers, not just employers.