The importance of being ethical: In Conversation with Rowlinson Knitwear

 

Chris Rowlinson, director of business improvement at Stockport-based Rowlinson Knitwear, explains why an ethical and environmental approach to business is a key part of the company’s identity.

Established in 1935 by Chris’ grandfather, Rowlinson Knitwear provides specialist schoolwear and corporatewear, employing around 50 staff in Stockport and half a dozen more in its overseas partner factories.

The business has a strong track-record of upholding ethical standards and in 2015 transferred into full employee ownership. In 2019, it declared a Climate Emergency and shut down its business for 24 hours to mark global climate strikes.

The company has received support from a number of GC Business Growth Hub services, including a £12,000 Energy Efficiency Grant towards the cost of LED lighting and advice from our Eco-innovation service on future textiles. 

When did you start seeing yourself as an ‘ethical’ business?

Becoming an employee-owned business in 2015 was a catalyst for a lot of the more altruistic initiatives that we’ve embraced in recent years, but we’ve been committed to ethical business practices for a long time.

When we switched from UK-based manufacturing to importing goods from overseas in the early 2000s, from the start we took an ethical approach based on building close relationships with our offshore factories. We’ve done lots of different initiatives over the years – in Bangladesh, for example, we provided industrial water filters for employees’ homes after discovering that many were struggling to get access to clean water. In Egypt we recognised that the minimum wage wasn’t enough for a good quality of life so we now pay around double that rate. These sorts of actions don’t cost us a fortune, but they make a huge difference to a large number of people.

How have you supported your supply chain during lockdown?

We operate differently to other businesses in that we value really long-term relationships with our factories. For example, we have a supplier in Egypt that we’ve been working with continuously for a couple of decades, and another in the Philippines that we’ve been working with right since the beginning. We have an overseas director who is constantly visiting suppliers and we employ staff directly on the ground in each country. 

The way we see it is that they’re like an extension of us – without them we haven’t got a business. So we try to make life as easy as we can for them by providing long programmes of work and making sure we satisfy weekly capacities. During lockdown we’ve worked closely with all of our factories to ease down production in a way that’s allowed them to continue operating without laying people off.   

What led to your decision to declare a Climate Emergency and close your business during the climate strikes in 2019?

We’d been building a lot of momentum on climate-related activities from the beginning of 2019. Our overseas director was doing a lot of work with the Ethical Trading Initiative, which we’re now a member of. We learned about B Corps and loved what that was all about, and we also began the accreditation process for The Planet Mark, which required producing our first formal carbon footprint. Amongst all that, we identified with the global climate strikes that there was an opportunity to make a strong statement by shutting the business down and using that time to bring the business together for our own ‘Climate Crisis Day’.

We ended up running four different workshops for staff to learn about the climate crisis and environmental issues. We held a quiz at the end of the day and the winning team got tickets to visit the Eden Project in Cornwall. It was really powerful; we received our Planet Mark certification on the day and launched plans to our reduce carbon emissions and become a certified B Corp by the end of 2020.

What environmental improvements have you made so far?

We’ve really benefitted from leaving our old site in 2017 and moving into a more modern building – it was like a completely blank canvas. We invested upfront in LED lighting and movement sensors with an Energy Efficiency Grant from the Hub, and we use more efficient electric heating and cooling rather than gas boilers.

We’ll soon be installing a solar PV panel system on our roof which will be able to generate roughly twice as much power as we use over a 12-month period. That means we’ll be able to run off-grid for a certain portion of the year, sell the rest to the grid and charge our electric vehicles for free. We currently have two pure electric company cars and several plug-in hybrids, with more to come in future.

We’ve also made a lot of smaller improvements such as moving to waterless urinals, or getting separate bins for recycling rather than throwing everything into one big skip. Simply making our waste visible in this way has resulted in us generating less of it, so we’re probably saving on waste costs even though waste collection is slightly more expensive per kg.

Are there any other initiatives you’re currently working on?

Product is an area that we need to work on, not just in terms of what they’re made of to begin with but what happens to them once they’ve been worn. We see us being involved in that end-of-life process, so we’ve been doing some work with Manchester Metropolitan University looking at how garments can be reprocessed and recycled into other materials. On the design side, we’ve recently introduced a new range of schoolwear made from recycled polyester and we’re looking to provide more of these kinds of products in future.

Another area of interest is reducing airfreight. Our Planet Mark assessment revealed that 60 per cent of our emissions come from transporting goods by air, even though we only transport around 5 per cent of our goods this way. We’re working on initiatives to bring that right down and ultimately eliminate airfreight completely.

Has any of this translated into benefits in terms of your relationship with customers and stakeholders?

Definitely – our customers have been really supportive and actively engaged in the process. In our last annual customer survey one of the things lots of people came back with was questioning the amount of cardboard we were using. We now use recycled strapping to fasten boxes together rather than putting them into bigger cardboard cartons, and that’s gone down really well. The hope is that when we get around to making changes that are more challenging for us and them – such as curtailing airfreight, which will affect lead times – they will support us through those changes as well.

What would your message be to other businesses in Greater Manchester?

A lot of the measures you can take are really low cost. From an environmental point of view, we obviously want to make changes, but from a business case point of view in most cases it makes massive financial sense as well. That’s the most compelling thing I’d say to anyone really. Most of our smaller initiatives have been paid for through day-to-day cashflow, and for bigger investments like our solar panels we’ve always had great support from our bank.

Once you get into that mindset of stopping and thinking about things, and

looking at what options are available; you start to get this momentum and you begin questioning things you never used to. On our internal communications system we get loads of ideas being shared through articles people have read and suggestions of “why don’t we try this, why don’t we do that” – it’s infectious once you start to see what changes you can make.

 

This post was originally published on the GC Business Growth Hub website here.

Posted under General Interest on 22 July 2020