Debenhams Sustainability Report
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Ethical Trade Initiatives

We have a number of programmes to improve the lives of those within our supply chain, in particular female empowerment and worker wellbeing, which are two of our key components of our ethical strategy. The following programmes we have developed or participate in as wider retailer initiatives.





ILO – Better Work Programme

Better Work is a global partnership between the ILO (International Labour Organization), the International Finance Corporation (IFC), Brands, Government, Manufacturers, Trade Unions and Workers. The global programme reaches over 1.3 million workers, with 80% of those workers being women.

The aim is to improve social standards and the lives of workers through monitoring, stakeholder engagement and facilitating collaboration between workers and management to strengthen dialogue on work-related issues. The programme builds on long-term improvement plans to create real sustainable change.

Better Work programme uses tools such as factory self-reporting and public reporting to improve conditions and drive competitiveness within the industry.

As a partner member, Debenhams garment factories in Cambodia, Vietnam and more recently Bangladesh, are involved in the programme. During the course of 2017 Debenhams Ethical Compliance team, supported by the ILO, have conducted seminars in the UK, Cambodia and Vietnam for suppliers and factories, to continue awareness, training and open discussions on the Better Work audit programme.

Debenhams and Better Work Seminar in Cambodia

Debenhams and Better Work Seminar in Vietnam

Better Factories Cambodia (BFC) started in 2001 with participation in the Better Work programme being mandatory for all export garment factories. During the past 18 months we have indirectly impacted over 24,000 workers in our supply chain.

Better Work Vietnam (BWV) started in 2009, only garment and footwear factories in Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi are in scope. Better Work Vietnam (BWV) to date has reached over 6000 workers since we engaged in the programme.

Cambodian factory

Vietnamese factory

The factories benefits from:

  • Fewer audits
  • On-going support through improvement plans and regular visits by the ILO local team
  • Access to networking with other factories and brands
  • Support on labour law
  • Tailored visits to ensure sustainable improvements
  • Access to free training days


In 2015, Debenhams partnered with Swasti, an International Health Resource Centre based in Bangalore, India to implement our LIFE programme (Life Skills for Empowering Women), that is aimed at raising awareness and empowering workers, particularly women, working in Debenhams Indian supply chain. The programme objective is to create long-term sustainable capacity building systems through training and awareness, life skills that will help women enhance their lives and lead them to financial empowerment.

The workers are trained on five key modules:

  • Health & Hygiene
  • Food & Nutrition
  • Reproductive Health
  • Financial Literacy
  • Gender Relationships

Swasti specialised trainers: The Programme gives in depth training on reproductive health, general health and well-being with access to health services and products. The training on gender relationships creates awareness about gender-based violence. The training has created a happier work environment, less absenteeism as a result of healthy eating, with those trained to date sharing their learning with friends and families.

Currently this initiative has been implemented in 5 factories in South India impacting over 5873 workers, (3460 female and 2413 male). The LIFE project has developed 289 Peer Educators, (211 female and 78 male) as change makers to educate and support their co-workers to handle challenges personally and professionally leading to an enhanced quality of life.

An example below shows the Impact on worker learning before and after the programme through Impact assessment:

Success Stories

Changes at a personal level:

“I have begun to look at women with respect after the program. I would look down upon women, and feel that they were not equals. The training made me realize that we are equals. I also learnt about menstruation, and realized that I need to help my mother and sister at home, especially during those days as they need to rest. I have shared learning on nutritious food with them, and they follow it now. My mother cooks a variety of vegetables at home. I discuss my finances with my mother, and I have been able to save Rs.5000 every month in the bank. My mother and aunt save in the post office every month.”

Rajashekhar, Sample, Cutting Assistant

“Workers maintain hygiene at the workplace. Men and women mingle with each other, and help each other at work. They have begun to eat nutritious food, and drink boiled water. I give boiled water to all the children in the crèche.”

“Someone I know is separated from her husband. She lives all alone, and I have been able to build her confidence to live her life. I have shared the learnings from the program, and encourage her to go ahead in life. Today, I am able to help and talk to someone because of the program. Swasti should reach more people through this training, so that they are able to lead enriching lives.”

Shanti, a caretaker in the Crèche

The LIFE programme is increasing scope reaching many more of our Indian suppliers. Please visit for more information.

Some of the Impacts of the programme is shared through the below videos from our factories:


Fast Forward

The Fast Forward Programme is an industry initiative focusing on human rights risks in supply chains, with retailers working collaboratively together to tackle labour exploitation, with the aim to improve and build a sustainable UK manufacturing base.

The Modern Slavery Act came into effect in 2015, which required businesses to declare actions taken to make their supply chain fully transparent. The Fast Forward programme was set up as a brand collaborative initiative by David Camp of Alliance HR ( Debenhams is a founder member of Fast Forward since 2015 and currently there are 9 Retail members and brands in the programme.

The programme tackles the industry wide shortfall in labour standards identified in the UK supply chain through the ETI Leicester report published in December 2014, written by the University of Leicester (link).

The Fast Forward assessment, approach and methodology has proven to delve appropriately into business management systems and labour laws and identify poor working conditions in which the majority of standard audit cases were not previously identified. The in-depth audit assessments cover key areas such as right to work, national minimum wage, contracts of employment, tax, mistreatment and health & safety in line with the UK labour law requirements.

We have 21 factories in Apparel, Food and Furniture in the UK and all the facilities have been audited under this programme with a Modern Slavery assessment. The programme currently impacts more than 4000 workers in our supply chain. This assessment replaces the industry standard SMETA audit for our UK supply base, however we continue to use the SMETA audit methodology globally.

21 100%
No of UK factories we
source from
 Fast Forward audited

Some of the non-compliances found through these audits are:

  • Right to work checks not in place at the factory premises
  • Contracts do not state the National Minimum Wage
  • Factories cannot demonstrate that it collects the National insurance numbers
  • Agency workers in the factories are not aware of their legal rights which include documented copy of signed contracts, illegal deductions, min wage calculations etc.

Post audit, we work with our suppliers and factories on a remediation programme with agreed timelines. This programme is being introduced across our business to other categories such as GNFR (Goods Not for Resale) Service Providers. All of our suppliers have gone through a one day Fast Forward workshop and training to understand the requirements of the programme. Being a member of Fast Forward allows us to build honest and open dialogue with our UK factories in order to build long term sustainable partnerships.

China Collaboration Programme

In 2015, we identified certain non-compliance issues which continued to show minimal improvements in a number of our factories in China. As a result we risk mapped our entire China factory base to identify priority factories. Partnering with Impactt, who are a leading Ethical Trade consultancy, we designed and developed a capacity training programme, focusing on the following key areas:

The programme aimed to clarify some common root causes of issues such as inefficient systems for social security insurance, excessive overtime working hours in peak seasons, how to balance fair compensation and factory productivity for piece-rate workers. All training material was designed and conducted in local language by Impactt’s expert training team supported by Debenhams own Ethical Compliance team members.

39 suppliers participated in our initial phase. The relevant responsible person from each factory had to attend the off-site training to ensure their mutual and efficient understanding of the training content and legal requirements. At the end of the sessions, each participant was required to design realistic and practical solutions based on their individual factory issues to resolve the non-compliance identified from their previous audits. They were encouraged to think proactively with additional risk assessments and action plans to sustain and monitor improvement including workers’ involvement in overall management efficiently and effectively.

At the end of the agreed remediation timeframe, Impactt conducted remote support to verify progress of each committed action with the individual factory participants.

At the end of 2016 our factories had developed 672 improvement actions and 70% or 471 actions were completed or in progress.

We further identified additional areas for improvement including training policy, workers’ involvement, topics such as anti-bribery and anti-slavery. As the initial phase, which was 18 months long was positive we shared our programme with other ETI members and as a consequence it has been developed further to include a total of 7 major retailers and brands, increasing the scope across China.

There are now 140 factories in Guangzhou, Hangzhou and Fujian regions, enrolled in the expanded programme.

In July 2017, 78 factories had completed the first training module on health and safety in Guangzhou and Hangzhou, they expressed different challenges during the training which included:

  • Electrical safety, to reduce the risk of fire
  • Fire safety training, including use of equipment and the importance of clear exit routes
  • Safe Chemical storage, focusing on the correct use and storage of hazardous materials

We will continue to collaborate with Impactt and retailers to move non-compliant factories along the compliance journey.

(ACT) Action, Collaboration, Transformation – A new way of approaching “Living Wages” in the supply chain

Debenhams is a member of ACT (Action, Collaboration, Transformation), which is a new collaborative initiative bringing together international brands, retailers, manufacturers and global trade unions to address the issues of living wages in the garment sector, supply base.

ACT defines a living wage as…..

“A living wage is the minimum income necessary for a worker to meet the basic needs of themselves and their family, including some discretionary income. This should be earned during legal working hour limits, and should not include overtime.”

All signatory member brands and retailers, including Debenhams have signed a MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) with IndustrialALL Global Union who represent garment and textile workers.

The purpose of the MOU is to outline and detail all members’ commitment to closing the gap between minimum wages and the living wage within all major sourcing countries. The main mechanism for change will be through industry-wide collective bargaining linked to purchasing practices.

The journey so far……..

To date ACT has already commenced work in Cambodia, engaging with the government and on the ground stakeholders.

As ACT brands we have engaged with suppliers through workshops and seminars, to commence dialogue on the challenges around wages.

Commenced work focusing on the importance of fair and sustainable Purchasing Practices, which reflect the relationship between the retailer with the supplier, during the buying process. This encompasses the initial design stage all the way through to delivery of the products into our stores.

The ACT Living Wage initiative has already commenced work in Cambodia

Sudokkho program

Sudokkho is a five-year skills training and employment programme in Bangladesh funded by UK aid through its Department for International Development (DFID) and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) implemented by Palladium, in consortium with Swisscontact and British Council in cooperation with the Directorate of Technical Education (DTE), Government of Bangladesh. Sudokkho’s objective is to reduce poverty through better training and job opportunities for the poor. The “Industry Based Training” (IBT) of Sudokkho works together with private sector employers to support industry to develop innovative and sustainable skills training systems that allow existing or new employees to acquire the skills that lead to employment in higher valued semi-skilled or skilled jobs.

Debenhams started its partnership with Sudokkho in 2015 and as the first buyer partner, nominated six supplier factories to design and pilot a training system to enhance skills of sewing machine operators. The pilot focused on generating evidence to demonstrate the positive correlation between a skilled workforce and improved efficiency. Six factories have recruited 1,235 trainees and 1,041 trainees have been graduated as ‘Sewing Machine Operators’. In-factory ‘Trainers’ and ‘Assessors’ are trained to implement the in-factory training system which enables factories to train Sewing Machine Operators so that they attain optimum skills.

Sudokkho training system is not a traditional one trained in batches, rather, trainings are customized and factories are encouraged to use their monthly labour turnover and forecasts to define their workforce planning and training requirements. The training system adopts a Competency Based Approach, which allows faster learners to progress more rapidly focusing three core elements, Quantity, Quality and Time (QQT). To facilitate on-floor support, sensitisation sessions are organised with supervisors, floor in-charges and mid-management. Further, on-floor trainers are assigned in production floors to further support and mentor the newly integrated trainees.

With successful completion of the pilot in July 2016, scale-up phase started with fifteen supplier factories in December 2016, and twelve factories have already commenced the training system implementation and currently, the Training Need Assessment and preparation to start implementation in the remaining three factories is ongoing.

The training statistics from December 2015 to July 2017 from 18 factories are:

Debenhams factories Number of trainees trained
Total 1,908
Women 1,813
Men 95
Women % 95%
Men % 5%

Empowering Women

Through this partnership, 70 women Trainers were trained by the supplier factories which has resulted in better career opportunities for these former Sewing Machine Operators. The Trainers are now earning the same as Supervisors.

 The average training lead time per trainee was found to be 1.6 months across factories before the implementation of the new training system. On an average 51% reduction in training lead time was reported and the result has been widely acknowledged by all stakeholder.

Benefits reported by the factories

Training new entrants/helpers

  • Availability of workers in the required operations at the required time
  • The trainees can support production while building their own skills
  • The trainees trained in the training centre can perform better than the helpers who were trained on-the-job
  • The supervisors are asking more trainees from the training line
  • The operators trained in the training room confirm to the floor discipline
  • High supervisory satisfaction

Testimonials from factories

Sudokkho Supervisors training

When working with factories, Sudokkho realized that production line supervisors play a critical role in supporting and mentoring workers as well as enabling better production floor management. However, most of them have evolved into their roles and continue to learn on-the-job without a formal technical training. Several research papers have stated similar conclusions on the shortage of technical skills of supervisors and how this impacts production floor performance, quality of outputs and workforce management.

So, for better result and long-term sustainability Sudokkho offered trainings for ‘Supervisory Positions’ as the integrated next level training system. Training Needs Assessments have been done in five factories, design validation also done and pilot will start soon. At this level, focus will be given mostly on industrial engineering and production value chain engineering. In this level, Industrial Engineering department will be involved and in-factory engineers will be trained as ‘Trainers’ and ‘Assessors’ who will then train in-factory supervisory personnel (Line Supervisors, Line Chiefs, Line Manager, Floor Managers).

Through this circular approach Sudokkho and Debenhams hope that the RMG industry will get steady flow of skilled workforce and at the same time poor people will get the chance to enter the job market quickly with right set of skills and thus the industry will become more resilient.

For further information please go to


Following the tragic Rana Plaza building collapse in 2013, the Accord was set up as an independent agreement between brands and trade unions designed to work towards a safe and healthy Bangladeshi Ready-Made Garment (RMG) Industry.

Debenhams remain a signatory to the ACCORD and have continued this commitment by signing the new ACCORD 2018 agreement.

We continue to support our supplier partners and factories to ensure the remediation from the ACCORD inspections is being completed to ensure worker safety. On a continual basis our Dhaka compliance team visit factories, monitor progress and we attend joint collaborative retailer meetings in Dhaka, UK and ACCORD EU headquarters. For further information please go to

All Debenhams Bangladeshi factories have been inspected under the ACCORD