Corporate approaches to addressing modern slavery in supply chains

A snapshot of current practice

About this research

In October 2015, complying with the UK Modern Slavery Act became a legal requirement for at least 12,000 companies in the UK and around the world. The Ashridge Centre for Business and Sustainability at Hult International Business School and the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) partnered to lead this research into company perspectives and responses to the risks of modern slavery in their global supply chains — against a backdrop of increasing global human rights legislation and reporting requirements.

Who took part?

We engaged with a range of companies that are already actively managing labour standards in their supply chains. We interviewed 21 leading brands, retailers and suppliers from clothing, grocery, department store, home and garden retail, beverage, fresh produce and health and personal care sectors. Companies were a mix of ETI and  non-ETI members. 51 brands and retailers participated in a wider survey. 

The following companies were willing to be named as participants: ASDA, B&Q, Co-operative Food, Debenhams, Eileen Fisher, Fyffes, Inditex, John Lewis Partnership, Marks & Spencer, Matrix APA, Morrisons, Next, Patagonia, SABMiller, Sainsbury's, Tesco, The Body Shop, Waitrose.


Our specific aims were to:

  • Provide insights into the motivation, drivers and practices of companies as they develop policies and strategies to address or mitigate the risks of modern slavery in their supply chains;
  • Provide insights for companies engaging with modern slavery for the first time by sharing the experience and learning of others, helping to accelerate the Modern Slavery Act’s aim of creating a level playing field;
  • Create a qualitative baseline for ETI on how their member companies are addressing modern slavery at the time the Modern Slavery Act is coming into force.

What did we find?

Modern Slavery Diagram

From our interviews and survey with companies, we found that modern slavery is widely perceived to be present in supply chains and that there are a number of important drivers and catalysts prompting companies to get engaged. Companies perceive modern slavery in different ways and are undertaking a range of practices and activities, depending on their level of experience and where they are in their journey. There are a number of enabling factors that enhance their ability to take action. Each section in the report illustrates these findings with quotes from those interviewed, and highlights of the findings include:

  1. 71% of companies believe there is a likelihood of modern slavery occurring at some stage in their supply chains: it is complex, hidden and challenging to address.
  2. Addressing modern slavery in supply chains requires urgent action. It is a terrible abuse and though changes may take time, it is encouraging to see the momentum building and the steps companies are already taking.
  3. Addressing it is a leadership issue – supply chains themselves are complex, and companies need to find ways to innovate and change their business models to root out the existence and risk of modern slavery. Top management leadership is essential.
  4. This report looks at what companies are already doing – acknowledging it is a complex problem – and draws together the steps they are taking to help others engage with the issues faster.
  5. Collaboration – with competitors and with NGOs, governments and others – is essential for companies to be able to tackle it. They have to find ways to overcome competitive barriers.

Research team

This research was a collaboration between the Ashridge Centre for Business and Sustainability at Hult International Business School, and the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI). The project team included Quintin Lake, Jamie MacAlister, Matthew Gitsham and Nadine Page at Ashridge, and Cindy Berman from ETI.

Download a copy of the report

Next steps

The next phase of this research explores how the UK Modern Slavery Act is shaping corporate activities, looking in particular at the role of leadership in building an effective response.