Burned-out white-collar workers aren’t the only ones who have embraced “quiet quitting,” a phrase popularized on TikTok that describes doing just enough at the office to avoid getting pink-slipped into the unemployment line.
Suppliers are doing it, too, except instead of avoiding extra paperwork over the weekend it’s skating by on certifications, said Andre Raghu, CEO of HAP, a supply-chain mapping platform.
The issue, he said at a recent Transformers Foundation webinar, is that schemes meant to surveil supply chains have largely proven inefficient and ineffective. A study that the nonprofit published last month about chemical auditing said as much. Without universal agreement on what needs to be measured—and how—the realm of voluntary chemical safety has proven confusing, expensive and riddled with loopholes. And until something changes, factories aren’t going to put in more effort than they have to.
“They will continue to quiet-quit certifications because it’s not just that they don’t see [that they’re] working, it’s the fear of what happens if they don’t do [them],” Raghu said. Suppliers might also lean more into hiring private consultants whose goal is to help them pass inspections, but not much else.
A sticking point with audits today is they’re aimed at “finding faults,” which in and of itself isn’t helpful, said Siva Pariti, senior technical marketing officer, at BluWin, a chemical management firm.
“We do not have a mechanism [for] improving the system,” he said. “Therefore we are just going on and on filing reports.”
It’s important to realize how the audit industry came about in the first place, said Crispin Argento, chief operating officer at fiber-to-textile platform FibreTrace. The “cat-and-mouse thing” that has served as the fashion industry’s compliance backbone for the past three decades was born from the Nike sweatshop scandals of the 1990s. Since then, certification programs have mushroomed, covering everything from organic fiber claims to social accountability.
“All of these came from risk management; they didn’t come from the delivery of impact,” he said. “A lot of these audits, as they currently exist, are insurance policies for both sellers and buyers to ensure smooth transactions in trade. They’re not intended to deliver real value or impact and they never were to begin with.”
The question the garment sector needs to ask itself then is whether it wants the real impact because that requires a “transformation of trade.”
“It’s about engaging deeper in your value chain,” Argento said. “It’s about real collaboration—not holding hands in a circle and singing ‘Kumbaya,’ but about sharing financial risks and rewards.”
This also includes not merely rubberstamping results but looking at the broader context of what they mean, as a Human Rights Watch report about social audits recently pointed out.
“Traditional audits are usually conducted over a few days—typically one or two days in all the audit reports that I’ve looked at—and most of them don’t have interviews with workers off-site,” said Aruna Kashyap, the organization’s associate economic justice and rights director. “An issue that auditors raised is that even if they sense a problem, they can’t really chase it down because there’s not enough time and they have too many questions in an eight-hour period that they’re expected to cover.”
For Raghu, the current climate simply doesn’t support engagement in what he calls the “difficult conversations.”
“The most critical thing is really the relationship component between all the parties,” he said. “Because at the end of the day, whether we’re talking about chemicals or we’re talking about human rights issues, it still connects to an activity to deal with humans in a production environment. And to the extent we’ve removed this part of the thinking from the process, it presents a real obstacle to being successful in the future.”
Anne Manschot, market director of Enact Sustainable Strategies, a sustainable business consultancy, doesn’t see it so much as a standards problem as a process problem.
“I think on paper the standards are actually quite deliberate and well-defined and clear on what a good factory or a good supplier should look like,” she said. “If you want to really improve the situation and you want to really lift workers’ rights to the next level, then I think it’s more about collaboration and trust and moving away from [policing].”
Many violations can be traced to prices brands are willing to pay for products, Manschot said. They can also be influenced by poor commercial practices such as insufficient lead times or last-minute tweaks to orders.
“This power dynamic definitely influences how suppliers can perform,” she added. “And I think it’s really necessary to look at what other tools you can use to support your suppliers on this journey rather than more stringent audits or surprise audits, or more elaborate standards. I think it’s more about changing that dynamic into how do we jointly identify issues and how do we empower suppliers to really make that change?”
What the industry needs right now, Argento said, is to “employ a little bit of imagination” and “rethink the rules” so that it can connect intention to reality.
“We have to change the rules of how we engage with one another and that’s the only solution,” he said. “If we continue to push on the system that we think is going to solve itself, 20 years down the line [and] $10 billion in audits later, we’re going to be in the same place.”