Oxfam and Burberry: Moving ‘beyond audit’ to impact

Rachel Wilshaw General, Influencing, Living wage, Private sector

Engaging with Burberry as a ‘critical friend’ has helped Oxfam to understand barriers and opportunities for better workers’ rights. Rachel Wilshaw describes how collaboration has enabled us to innovate and test solutions together.

I first visited Burberry just over five years ago. The glamour pouring from the elegant building, and the giant screen showing the latest catwalk collection, were somewhat daunting. However, I was quickly put at ease by the arrival of Pam Batty, who had invited me to join the company’s Responsibility Advisory Committee.

We were both board members of the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI), having met in the late 1990s. Pam had joined Burberry in 2012 from a similar position at Next plc. She had shown leadership on the need for companies to ‘move beyond auditing, and go for initiatives that address issues at a deeper, more fundamental level’, so I was intrigued by what she could achieve at Burberry.

Understanding one another’s perspectives

Understanding the real challenges facing a business trying to do the right thing has enabled Oxfam to input more thoughtful insights and recommendations than would otherwise have been possible.
One of Pam’s first tasks at Burberry in 2013 was to put together an advisory group on social and environmental impact. Her experience of working with ETI members had shown her the value that external perspectives can bring.

A combination of goodwill and mutually agreed principles for collaboration helped to develop trust over time. Understanding the real challenges facing a business trying to do the right thing has enabled Oxfam to input more thoughtful insights and recommendations than would otherwise have been possible.

Learning and innovation placements: living wages and worker wellbeing

In 2014, we invited Burberry’s Ethical Trade Manager, Rebecca Loyo Mayo, to spend part of her summer at Oxfam House. Our research, reported in In Work but Trapped in Poverty, had highlighted a wide gap between legal minimum wages and a decent living wage in a range of sectors.

Burberry was already an accredited Living Wage Employer, a scheme which covers employees in its offices, shops, and Yorkshire factory and mill. It is also active in the Global Living Wage Initiative.

Together, Rebecca and I conducted interviews with people from varied organisations, and captured these in Steps Towards a Living Wage in Global Supply Chains. At the end of the placement, she presented her learning, first to Oxfam, then to Burberry staff. This proved a useful way to raise awareness of the issue within the company.

In 2017, we discussed our shared interest in what a ‘beyond audit’ approach could look like as part of Burberry’s ‘manufacturing excellence’ programme. This led to a second placement, this time by Burberry’s Responsibility Project Manager, Siobhan Cullen, working with Oxfam’s Ethical Trade Advisor, Beck Wallace.

At the end of six weeks, and numerous internal and external interviews, they produced a worker wellbeing survey and a roadmap to worker wellbeing. The survey includes 41 indicators represented by statements such as: ‘I feel valued and respected at work’, ‘I feel able to predict my income over the year and plan my spending’, and ‘I have opportunities for progression and promotion’.

In October, we visited the factory and mill in Castleford. It was great to see skilled workers stitching the iconic trench coat, and see how the cloth for it is woven. We conducted focus groups with factory workers to hear their perspectives and get their feedback on the tool.

Improvements across the supply chain

By the end of the year, Burberry had trialled the worker wellbeing survey with some suppliers in Europe. Pleased with the results, in 2018 they decided to roll it out to all their key suppliers, covering 60% of global production. Improvement plans will be informed by issues highlighted by workers.

From Burberry’s point of view, this is about continuous improvement in the wellbeing of workers in its supply chain. For Oxfam, it’s an opportunity to test something that goes beyond audit, and use the learning to influence systemic change across the garment sector.

Developing a programme partnership

In 2017, Burberry strengthened the alignment between the company’s responsibility goals and the Burberry Foundation’s social purpose. This enables a more long-term approach, and levers combined resources to support its Responsibility Goals. Burberry aims to positively impact 1 million people in the communities it operates in by 2020.

As part of this strategy, the Burberry Foundation has provided funding to partner with Oxfam Italia and Oxfam in Afghanistan. The programme in Italy is designed to foster community cohesion and support youth employability in the Florentine area, renowned for its garment and luxury leather goods production. It aims to reach more than 200,000 people over five years.

The programme in Afghanistan will support social and economic empowerment by creating a more inclusive and sustainable cashmere industry. It aims to ensure that over 300,000 herders in North-West Afghanistan have more stable and resilient livelihoods.

Applying learning to campaigning

Working more closely with companies to address development challenges such as worker wellbeing and in-work poverty is seen positively by many of Oxfam’s supporters and shoppers. However, others are concerned that working so closely with companies risks compromising our values.

We always make it clear to corporate partners that we reserve the right to speak out publicly about issues that conflict with Oxfam’s mission. This gives us the confidence to collaborate where there is mutual benefit.

Working with Burberry to design and test possible solutions has been a wonderful opportunity for mutual learning about workers’ concerns, and how companies can better understand and address them. And this kind of hands-on experience informs the recommendations we make to companies when we are advocating action on workers’ rights in global supply chains.

Find out about our latest campaign to tackle human suffering in supermarket supply chains

Martin Walsh