Why this CEO asks every supplier for a glass of water

Ethical business involves a lot more than having a CSR department, says former White Stuff boss Sally Bailey.

by Stephen Jones
Last Updated: 16 Apr 2019

Britain has a long history of laws that - for the most part - protect worker rights and ensure safe and hygienic working conditions. Sadly that can’t always be counted upon when working further afield.

Look at high street fashion for example. In recent decades retailers have increasingly relied on factories in the developing world to produce their garments. While this keeps production costs down, tragedies like the 2013 Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh - which killed up to 1,400 factory workers who produced clothes for Primark and Matalan - shows that this can inexcusably come at the expense of worker welfare.

This is something that Sally Bailey has always been determined to change. When she was appointed CEO of high street lifestyle brand White Stuff in 2004, her mission was to grow the business while remaining true to the ethical principles upon which the company was founded.

The success of the brand demonstrates that the two are not mutually exclusive. In Bailey’s nine years in charge turnover increased from £10m to £110m and the company continues to score highly for its approach to people in the Ethical Company Organisation’s Good Fashion Guide

But Bailey says ‘doing good’ is not simply about having a CSR department - as some businesses seem to think. The process needs to be root and branch.

In 2010 she established the White Stuff foundation, which pledged to give 1 per cent of profits to charity every year and introduced processes to ensure that the brand works closely with manufacturers to improve the everyday lives of workers across its supply chain.

"Whenever I visit factories, be that in India, China or wherever, I will always ask for a glass of water from the same source as the workers. That’s a really quick way to establish what the conditions are like and whether the workers are being treated properly. Some suppliers were confused as they always handed out bottled water to visitors, but I would insist on having the water from the same source as the workers.

"If there was a problem we would never just walk away. Withdrawing business does not help the factory workers. It’s much better to work with factory owners to educate them on how improving conditions helps retain good staff and is actually good for business.

"I would never embarrass a factory owner in front of his staff, but in private I would make it clear that providing safe and healthy conditions for workers is a non negotiable. I’d also offer for our staff to work with them to help improve their facilities.

"We interview staff from the factory floor. The factory owners know that we will do this as part of our agreement, but they don’t know which individuals we talk to so there are no repercussions.

"In one incident we found that workers were being paid less than minimum wage. We challenged the owner and it turned out that it was a problem with a supervisor. In the end we worked with the factory to improve processes so that it couldn’t happen again.  

"By showing that you genuinely care about this stuff suppliers take you seriously and act. I believe that most people want to do good. They just need some help in realising that it is okay to do good in business too."

Further reading

Bailey left White Stuff in 2013. Among other ventures, she is now the chair of Pilotlighta charity that connects business leaders to charities in need of strategic support.

Image credits: Mahmud013/gettyimages


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