‘Finding the right partner to tackle modern slavery is absolutely essential’ – interview with Chris Harrop OBE

Ben Cooley and Chris Harrop OBE in front of Hope for Justice's Freedom Wall

Ben Cooley and Chris Harrop OBE in front of Hope for Justice’s Freedom Wall

Chris Harrop, Group Marketing and Sustainability Director at hard landscaping specialist Marshalls, was awarded an OBE in the New Year’s Honours list for services to the prevention of modern slavery and exploitation.

Hope for Justice has worked with Marshalls since 2016, helping to train its staff and working directly with its UK and international teams to help it map its supply chains and fortify them against modern slavery in the form of forced and bonded labour.

Chris, who is also a former chair of the United Nations Global Compact UK, the world’s largest corporate sustainability initiative, and a long-serving Director of the Ethical Trading Initiative, recently visited Hope for Justice’s Manchester head office (Chris is pictured here with our CEO, Ben Cooley). We spoke to him about his efforts since 2005 to continuously improve working conditions in Marshalls’ global supply chains, and lessons that other businesses can learn.

He explained: “Slavery in the 21st century is an affront to humanity and I’m incredibly proud of the work we are doing at Marshalls to drive change. But what we’re doing isn’t just about living up to our morals – there are sound business reasons for it too.

“Good business relies on talented, well-motivated and well-engaged employees. Any type of coercion, from wage exploitation to the worst forms of slavery within a supply chain, goes against that reduces quality and builds in inefficiencies.”

Chris gave the example of the unforeseen benefits of mapping global supply chains, an exercise that for some businesses can seem like a huge and intimidating task.

“It’s good business to know your supply chain but for many businesses, particularly those operating globally and with many tiers of suppliers, it’s getting missed off the list.

“By mapping your supply chain, you get to really understand the drivers of business success and competitive advantage, as well as to identify risks. While helping to stop the abhorrent crimes of modern slavery is the motivation, it has the additional benefit of enabling a business to understand its supply chain, and to shine a spotlight on previously hidden areas of inefficiency – or, indeed, opportunity.”

Chris said the training that Marshalls’ staff have received from Hope for Justice has been “fundamentally important” in enabling them to identify and report their concerns. This forms a part of Marshalls’ wider ‘find and fix’ methodology.

Chris said: “Modern slavery is certainly an area where a lot of businesses lack awareness or knowledge, which can make it hard to address without support. Finding the right partner to tackle it is absolutely essential. A partner who helps the organisation to first understand modern slavery, how it manifests and what it looks like, and then identify the key areas of risk and vulnerability. Once that understanding is there, you can develop a ‘find and fix’ approach. That’s the approach we’ve taken by working with Hope for Justice.”

Marshalls and Hope for Justice have been working together since 2016

Marshalls and Hope for Justice have been working together since 2016

Chris explained that while individual employees at Marshalls may feel moved to support causes like Hope for Justice personally, real change is possible when an entire business partners with a charity in this way.

These business-level decisions require board-level leadership. We asked Chris which role or department is best-placed to lead on modern slavery in a corporate environment. He said: “It’s got to be the people who are operationally involved in the running of the business. The worst behaviour I see is where it’s just about ticking corporate boxes – ‘have we got a statement? Yes, tick, next’.

“But the best examples place the responsibility in marketing, procurement, operations, manufacturing or supply chain logistics – the kinds of business functions where decisions around supply chains are actually made and where the real experience lies.”

In the early years of Chris’s work in this area, the decision to focus on modern slavery issues was more like an ethical choice on behalf of businesses. But today, thanks to the Modern Slavery Act 2015, larger businesses have statutory responsibilities in this area.

And while the Act has been a “great leap forward”, Chris says there are still missed opportunities and weaknesses. “Without a doubt the Act has raised awareness, but compliance can be achieved by simply having a [modern slavery] statement which in my opinion just isn’t good enough. This is not just about compliance. It’s not about publishing a statement that says, ‘we think modern slavery is bad’ and thinking that is enough. It must be about action.

“My main plea to other organisations is that, however daunting it might seem, the only way to make progress is to make a start. I’ve been at this for over 10 years and we still have a long way to go on the journey. But that should never be an excuse for doing nothing or just the minimum.”