Humanising the fashion supply chain

Humanising the fashion supply chain

Upon realising the true human cost of cheap labour in the fashion industry, Marianne Hughes launched her startup, Kno Global – focusing on the wellbeing of garment factory workers while also providing real-time supply chain data to brands and businesses globally.

In 2013 the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed; 1,134 people died. The tragedy was a watershed moment for the global fashion industry, which had become accustomed to cheap labour but was largely unwilling to confront the human cost of it. The disaster sparked an urgent debate round the world, and ignited a movement to improve the safety and conditions of garment workers. 

Marianne Hughes, who was based in London and working in fashion at the time, was horrified by the news and determined to push for change. Recognising a significant knowledge gap, she started a blog to help corporates get better information about what was happening in their factories. When Hughes met someone who owned factories in China, she travelled there herself to investigate, taking up a job on the factory floor. The research trip led her to found Kno Global, a platform that provides real-time supply chain data to brands and businesses – tracking the worker experience through detailed digital surveys about everything from productivity to wellbeing – as well as providing a 24/7 grievance channel for workers. Data collected includes, for example, reasons why a worker might consider leaving their job. In one factory, where 40-60% of workers cited loneliness or poor relationships, Kno was able to help the company target and reduce worker turnover by 10-25%, saving hundreds of thousands of dollars annually. 

Kno Global products are currently used by 100,000 factory workers across India, China and Vietnam, in conjunction with some of the world’s best known retail brands, which get access to a database of suppliers and the social data associated with the factory. The startup recently raised venture capital investment and has plans to expand across Southeast Asia. 

Marianne Hughes, Founder and CEO of Kno Global

Accurate supply chain data has never been more important. Consumers and investors increasingly judge businesses by their ESG standards and the media continues to expose examples of poor practice. While environmental and climate-related impacts are easier to quantify, Hughes found that data related to worker wellbeing and rights were less reliable. Surveys and audits would result in inaccurate results as workers were often unwilling to be honest about their experiences due to fear of repercussions. After building relationships with factory workers in China, Hughes realised that effective data collection depended on the trust and collaboration of those it seeks to serve. 

This is one way that Kno Global differentiates itself from traditional auditing. It establishes itself in new factories through a “community hero” approach, in which existing workers act as ambassadors for the platform, rather than parachuting in an outside team each time. This has proved to generate higher engagement with the platform from the start, which is crucial to collecting accurate data; at some sites Kno Global has achieved weekly engagement of 75 per cent and ten times more workers responses than non-digital traditional methods such as a hotline, worker voice surveys or consultants. The community hero model also provides an offline, in-person point of contact for workers. This, says Hughes, is important in environments where people may not own smartphones or be tech-literate. “You can’t just slap a banner on something and say technology is the answer,” she explains.    

Hughes is particularly proud of her work on sexual harassment in factories. Kno Global provides an anonymous space to provide real-time feedback about everything from pay to mental health. By providing employers with detailed data, management can respond to grievances more effectively. Worker turnover, Hughes found, was very high. The company can also be a useful tool in staff retention by helping management boost worker wellbeing, as well as increasing efficiency. It can help attract more customers, too. For brands, it provides the sort of data that allows them to be transparent about their supply chains, in addition to managing risk and avoiding scandals.

With a focus on worker wellbeing, Kno Global offers factory workers a voice.

Hughes is now based in Finland, having previously lived in Hong Kong for 7 years. Working across multiple cultures can be a challenge, she says, and Kno Global has local teams throughout Asia that are equipped to communicate with clients. Hiring specialist advisers, she adds, will be crucial to growing the company. 

Ultimately, Hughes wants all the parties to feel empowered to be proactive about supply chain issues. She believes that a constant flow of data incentivises transparency and encourages a culture in which stakeholders can be guided toward action, rather than categorised as good or bad. If there is a problem in January, for example, a factory can take action and quickly demonstrate the impact. “We’re not trying to judge people off one report,” says Hughes, “but by their improvement.”

Marianne Hughes

Founder and CEO of Kno Global

Embarks on a one-year student exchange at the University of Hong Kong, while also volunteering for Redress Asia, an NGO for environmental sustainability in the fashion industry


Graduates with first class honours with a degree in business management from Royal Holloway, University of London


Completes as head of client engagement at London-based corporate citizenship portal GivingForce, and begins as Fellow at the Royal Society for the encouragement of the Arts, Manufactures and Commerce


Founds Kno Global as CEO with the goal of humanising the supply chain and reaching 10 million factory workers


Completes more than eight years as a writer and speaker at various international events targeting corporate audiences in supply chains and sustainability, and female entrepreneurship


Named on the Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia list in the manufacturing category

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