Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Moving Beyond Social Compliance

Most companies, even if they do not have a "CSR department" have a program in place to monitor social compliance in their global supply chains. For these companies, it is important to protect their brands' reputations by ensuring that the factories manufacturing their goods, often in developing countries, respect workers' rights, pay legal wages and abide by environmental legislation. It's also often from these departments that companies develop a more holistic CSR strategy.

I've spent the past two days in Ho Chi Minh City at the Better Work Vietnam International Buyers' Forum.  The Better Work program is described as:
"... a unique partnership between the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the International Finance Corporation (IFC).  It unites the expertise of the ILO in labor standards with that of the IFC in private sector development."
That's not a very telling description, but basically it's an effort to develop a sustainable, industry-wide mechanism to promote stronger industrial relations and good working conditions for garment factories in targeted countries (Vietnam, Cambodia, Jordan, Haiti).

Today, apparel retailers have different codes of conduct that they expect their contract factories to adhere to as a condition for doing business. To ensure that these factories are upholding the expectations expressed in these different codes of conduct, retailers employ auditors (either company employees or third-party audit firms) to visit factories and check conditions against their respective codes. With many retailers sharing the same factories, you can imagine that factories are visited dozens of times each year by auditors and out of each visit comes a list of "corrective action plans" for the factory to implement in order to remain in good compliance with retailers' codes.

This approach creates an environment where factories seek to solve specific problems in preparation for the next audit, but they may not take the time to understand root causes of non-compliance. Instead of understanding why they're unable to control overtime hours, factories may look for short-term solutions in order to "pass" the next audit.

The Better Work program seeks to shift the dialogue away from "auditing" and "monitoring" to truly finding long-term, sustainable solutions to poor factory working conditions.  In addition to conducting factory assessments (similar to a typical audit, but much more detailed and thorough), Better Work provides factories with consulting services and training (both for management and workers) in order to build factories' capabilities to manage working conditions and industrial relations.

Furthermore, retailers that subscribe to the Better Work program, agree to stop auditing factories and rely instead upon the Better Work assessments for insight into factory working conditions. This alleviates the factories from repetitive auditing and the International Labor Organization provides a credible approach that provides companies with the confidence that factories are being held to internationally accepted labor standards.

To me, it's a win-win situation, but these past two days have highlighted some challenges to broader adoption of this approach. Companies have had social compliance audit programs in place for decades and some are unwilling to let go of their own programs. People who represent companies and auditors have a vested interest in seeing the current environment prevail (They may fear for their jobs.), so they're not necessarily interested in promoting an industry-wide practice. Companies insist that their standards are stricter than the ILO standards and are unwilling to compromise on some points in order to support the Better Work framework.

The Better Work program has its work cut out for them, but I'm hopeful that retailers will embrace this approach more fully and the industry can move beyond the never-ending cycle of social compliance audits toward an internationally accepted, industry-wide system that focuses on the most important goal: improving the lives of garment workers.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Independent, Third-party Factory Audit

We employ a third-party social compliance audit firm to conduct social and environmental audits of our factories. In some cases, the purpose of these audits is to check our primary auditor's performance and in others, we rely entirely on these third-party audits. Through using a third-party audit firm, we aim to introduce a neutral party to avoid conflicts of interest and to ensure that we bring in an impartial perspective that does not have a financial stake in our relationship with the supplier.

On Friday, I accompanied our third-party audit firm for a shadow audit in China. It was the first time I'd visited a factory with a neutral party (instead of a company-appointed representative or a company employee) and it proved to be fairly educational.

From the outset, the tone of the visit was very different. Usually, auditors have a pre-existing relationship with factory management. The auditors have been to the factory before, they've worked together over the years and it's a collegial, if not friendly, relationship. With a third-party audit firm that has no previous relationship, the visit has a much less friendly tone.  It's strictly professional and both sides clearly are assessing each other throughout the visit.

The factory staff seemed much more nervous than on other audits I've shadowed. It could have been because this was the first time we had ever asked the factory to be audited, or it could have been my presence, representing a customer. Whatever the case, the entire day took on a much more formal environment than I was used to.

When it came time for lunch, the factory management team offered to take us to lunch, but our audit firm steadfastly refused. Typically, I will break bread with the factory managers to build our relationship and to discuss matters like production levels, hiring challenges, compliance issues, etc. in a more casual setting. Our audit firm has a policy to have lunch on its own, again to avoid any conflicts of interest.

And in the closing meeting, when we typically discuss next steps, corrective action plans and timing for implementation, we ended up pointing out the violations we'd found and leaving it at that.  We cannot guarantee that the audit firm will return to ensure that the corrective action plans have been implemented. In some cases, companies will send their own representatives to ensure follow-up. In this case, we could only say what we'd found and the conversation never turned to remediation or true improvement.

Friday's visit really highlighted for me some of the shortcomings of the third-party audit system. I still believe they play an important part of any social compliance program, but to rely completely on them would probably not truly work toward improving factory workplace conditions.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Our CSR Summit

Earlier this week, we hosted a CSR brainstorming session to help three of our C-level executives understand some possibilities of infusing our brand with a more "socially conscious" angle. We invited in several CSR experts and a few CSR practitioners from other consumer-facing companies.

Prior to the event, I spent several weeks trying to convince people from my network to spend a few hours on the Tuesday morning after Labor Day with us in New York City. Understandably, people didn't commit to flying across the country for our meeting, but we did manage to get some strong representation from the New York area.

I also spent time in healthy debate with a marketing VP, whose role is to ensure that we project the appropriate brand image to external guests, including the type of food we have catered, the vases of white hydrangeas placed throughout the room and the color of the foam core (silver or white) we were allowed to use behind flip charts! She wanted bottled water, I insisted we get pitchers. She wanted to use a beautiful trash receptacle, I suggested recycling bins. In the end, since I'm not based in the New York office, she got her way. Despite saying she'd honor some of my sustainability requests, our meeting had bottled water and no recycling (among other things). As expected, several of our CSR guests commented on the "opportunities" to host a more sustainable meeting.

But the meeting itself went better than expected. We had a very robust dialogue, surfaced some exciting possibilities and I think everyone in attendance felt inspired by our brand and its potential connections to the planet and to communities.

The problem we have now is how do we take these ideas and this momentum and bring it to life? My job is to continue to push this work forward, but we don't have the appropriate resources to accomplish everything we discussed. Our Chief Supply Chain Officer pledged that he would debrief with his executive peers and our CEO to get a better sense of priority and I hope we'll then be able to work on a strategic plan to put some of this work into action!