Five Questions for Business & Human Rights Leaders: Louise Nicholls, M&S

In the latest of our series, 'Five Questions for Business & Human Rights Leaders,' Article One speaks with Louise Nicholls, Corporate Head of Human Rights, Food Sustainability (Plan A) and Food Packaging at Marks & Spencer (M&S). Since joining M&S in 2008, Ms. Nicholls has led the retail company’s ethical trade and human rights program. In this profile, Ms. Nicholls discusses advancing corporate human rights management, how public reporting and rankings impact her work, and tips for a successful career in the business and human rights field.

1.        You are leading human rights at Marks & Spencer Group.  What does that mean for the company?

My role is to impart a passion for human rights across the business and to make sure M&S is living and breathing respect for human rights. To do that I have to make it simple and engaging for the different levels of leadership to engage with our human rights risks and opportunities. Every day we all make decisions that can have a positive or negative impact on people. What we’re trying to do at M&S is maximize our positive impact. 

That being said, I think we are very lucky at M&S.  The company has been around since 1884, and there are clear examples of early company culture showing a desire to respect human rights and treat people well.  Therefore, this isn’t something new, but rather something we’ve inherently done.  We have had an ethical trade program in place since the late 1990s and our human rights work today builds on that.  Our more recent work recognizes that this is no longer just about product supply chains, but about our own operations as well.

 

2.        How does human rights management take place at M&S on an operational level?

The structure that we’ve put in place helps us to address human rights across each of the different business units.  A practitioner in each business unit is responsible for conducting a human rights risk assessment of their field of work, and for ensuring that effective due diligence measures are in place.  Each identified practitioner is supported by a named director, and I oversee this combined human rights leadership team.   The leadership team receive human rights training to inform their work streams, and are further supported by a Human Rights Steering Group, which includes representatives of key decision-makers across the business.  The Steering Group remains small and agile enough to be able to debate tricky, difficult issues that M&S seeks to make progress on. I then provide regular human rights management updates to our Operations Committee, which is chaired by the CEO.

Recognizing that there is still a knowledge gap on human rights, I’ve established a Human Rights Stakeholder Advisory Group, which twice a year meets with the Steering Group to give them an update on external views of the sector.  From my experience working in ethical trade, I know that there isn’t one answer or solution.  Because of this, it’s critical to listen to different viewpoints, and from there determine pragmatic steps forward.

 

3.        M&S was recently ranked in the highest category of the Corporate Human Rights Benchmark (CHRB), as compared to other companies. How do rankings such as CHRB help or hurt your work?

We’re seeing a real demand for transparency on a whole range of issues, and we’re finding that we are increasingly being ranking on information that is publically available. Overall, I thought the CHRB was quite helpful with assessing how well M&S has been embedding the UN Guiding Principles for Business & Human Rights.  The timing was also ideal for us, as we were writing our human rights policy and rethinking our external collaborations.  Having another set of questions to use as a filter for our work was thus quite helpful.

In addition, when you get into the boardroom, and you have a score to point to, executives want to understand what’s behind the score and how we can do better.  We have been able to have really good conversations with the Board thanks to the different ratings and rankings.

 

4.        The retail industry is very fast paced and competitive in nature.  How do you find allies inside and outside the company to advance M&S’ human rights agenda?

Keep it simple. When I ran our senior leadership training internally, I made it really relevant to the different business units affected.  It really helps if you can point to simple steps that leadership can take.  For example, the Equality and Human Rights Commission created business and human rights guidance for Boards in five simple steps.  We also presented relevant press articles to show what our customers are reading about in the news.  Lastly, I used examples of personal liability regarding board directors, whereby I showed how corporate board members have had to explain and defend their actions. These have all been helpful when presenting our case.  If you can help relevant parties understand the relevance and simple steps they can take, they will be up for having the conversation.

In the past we have worked with many competitors and a range of stakeholder groups external to M&S.  However, the more you look at the salient issues and the root cause of each issue, we have found that we have needed to adapt our collaborations to more effectively and proactively address our salient issues. We recognize that it will be difficult to have a clean supply chain.  So, it is time that we move past being named and shamed, and take confidence in the fact that we are doing something about it and choosing our partners wisely.  I think that this where the UNGP language is very helpful.  Remediation is as important as the due diligence.

 

5.        M&S released its standalone human rights report in June 2016.  What advice would you give to other companies looking to embark on a similar endeavor?

The actual process of doing our first Human Rights Report 2016 was very valuable.  Bringing together the different areas of the business in order to identify and understand the human rights risks served the report and its narrative, but also greatly helped to frame our strategy.   It is a lot of work, but is essential forming and storming required to establish the business’ position and what it is trying to achieve.

What you will see in this year’s Human Rights Report 2017 is a tighter focus on understanding the root cause of our salient issues, and how M&S can have the greatest impact. Moving forward, I think we will be able to move away from having a standalone human rights report and integrate the content back into our Plan A Sustainability Report.  The past two years, we needed the narrative around our human rights management process and what M&S has learned.  From here on out, the change will come slowly and we will need to report on our progress.

 

BONUS QUESTION!

 

How did you come to work in business and human rights, and which three attributes do you find most important to be successful in this field?

Initially, I spent 8 years on the technical side of buying at M&S, and then after a small spell in IT and HR, I set up our ethical trade program.  This work then expanded into broader food sustainability, including packaging.  Because I had background with the ethical trade team, I knew that our broader food sustainability program needed to include a human rights agenda.   Before I knew it, I was running human rights management for the whole business. It all happened in a very organic way.

Three attributes required for working in this area are passion, listening ability, and bravery.  If you want to make things happen, your passion and enthusiasm will push you toward trying to make impactful change. Secondly, listening is crucial because business and human rights is a very gray area, and there are so many different perspectives and no one right answer.  Lastly, bravery is required precisely because there isn’t one right answer.  It’s about putting the marker in the sand and moving forward. If you don’t get it quite right the first time, there is always a second go-around.