Any of our business? Human Rights and the UK private sector - Human Rights Joint Committee Contents

Memorandum submitted by New Look Retailers


  New Look is an international fashion retailer based in the UK. Founded in 1969 in Taunton, Somerset since then the company has rapidly expanded and now operates across a chain of over 600 stores internationally. New Look is committed to engaging with suppliers and factories to understand the human rights risks throughout its entire supply chain in an effective and responsible way.

  We are grateful for the opportunity to submit evidence to the Joint Committee on Human Rights and hope our commentary assists the Committee in its inquiry. For the purposes of this submission we focus on a brand perspective of the current state of play regarding the garment industry and its effect on human rights and the challenges ahead for government and retailers.


  The motivation behind brands taking responsibility for the impact of the industry on the rights of people along their supply chain varies widely: from truly caring about the issues to compliance reasons, to tick boxes and gain recognition. Arguably motivations for taking responsibility do not matter, what matters is that action is taken and results are achieved. This submission therefore focuses on the people in the garment industry and how the garment industry behaves towards the people in its supply chain.

  Clothing sales in the UK in 2007 accounted for 12% of all retail sales, UK customers spent nearly £40 billion on clothes. Broadly speaking, the West consumes what the East produces, over 95% of the clothing sold on our high streets is produced outside the UK. Millions of people the world over are employed by the garment industry, over 15 million in China, two million in Bangladesh, three million in Turkey, and the wages they earn support further millions. It is an industry that has a perceptible effect on the world which means that the behaviour of retailers has a definite impact on the lives and rights of millions.

  The fashion industry puts pressure on suppliers in the East to deliver cheaper products faster. Most workers in the garment industry are on a minimum wage rate, which of course can be a long way off a living wage. Furthermore as the cost of living rises in the developing world; the gap between minimum and living wage is widening. Progress on implementing a living wage fashion industry supply chains has been very slow. We need to admit that working conditions can often be poor and working hours long.

  The industry is caught in a vicious circle where:

    — governments are less than effective in establishing reasonable minimum wage levels;

    — producers prioritise on-time production, resulting in long working hours, so as to receive payment;

    — retailers are adept at shifting production between suppliers and countries so as to control costs and preserve margins.

  However amongst these discordant voices there is a lot of passion and motivation to take action. It stands to reason that the fashion industry could do more in the way of collaboration so as to achieve results.


  In 2008, New Look worked with 339 suppliers in 29 countries—New Look's products were made in 938 factories based predominantly in Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, India, Turkey and Vietnam. An estimated 233,905 people are employed as part of New Look's supply chain.

  As part of New Look's commitment to understanding the human rights risks throughout its entire supply chain New Look is an active member of the ETI and engages with a range of projects to address human rights issues throughout its supply chain. This year New Look achieved an "Achiever" rating in all five categories the ETI use to assess companies.

  New Look's engagement with ethical trade is not only outwards, concerned with making changes factories, but is also reflective: We analyse the effect of purchasing practices on suppliers and factories and are developing an ethical buying programme involving members of the buying team as Ethical Champions.

  Some of New Look's most progressive projects have been to bring ethical trade closer to the core strategy of business success. We have engaged with suppliers and factories to roll out productivity projects where productivity means working smarter not harder. New Look has been working with a key supplier in Bangladesh to introduce a trial line with improved productivity processes. Productivity went up between by 33% and 50% per month; total take-home wages for the lowest paid worker increased by 24% for 46% fewer overtime hours. Workers went home two hours earlier, and the production speed increased. This programme is being rolled out to other factories in India, Bangladesh, China, Vietnam and Cambodia. In China, New Look is working with another key supplier to improve working conditions with the results of decreased turnover.


  Challenge One: It has been noted that voluntary labour standards initiatives are insufficient in bringing widespread change. It also stands to reason that governments should assume responsibility for legislation and enforcement of laws. Although the ETI is an arterial route into government, retailers should seek to engage with government more directly.

  Challenge Two: Could forms of business recognition that exist already be used; for example could Investors in People be extended to the field of ethical trading?

  Challenge Three: the West has exported millions of jobs and it is now necessary for the West to also export productivity expertise. We call on retailers and government to join us in working with suppliers to promote productivity improvements and to share the gains with workers. We would encourage the government to supplement these gains through duty incentives. This would allow wages to rise without triggering price rises in the UK.

  Challenge Four: Retailers should to review their buying practices to identify and correct situations where bad buying contributes to a situation in which workers are badly paid, badly treated and work long hours.

previous page contents next page

House of Lords home page Parliament home page House of Commons home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2009
Prepared 16 December 2009