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Op-Ed: Shifting Attitudes in Asia Underscore the Importance of Social Compliance

Since the dawn of the social compliance industry, it has primarily been a Western-focused venture. Allegations from labor activists in the 1990s that some of the most prominent apparel brands in the United States and Europe were sourcing their products from foreign facilities harboring unethical working conditions shocked consumers and business leaders throughout the West and prompted the creation of numerous organizations focused on addressing the social compliance needs of Western companies. With this in mind, it is also important to acknowledge that some of the largest retail markets in the world are in Asia, the very same place where many Western-based social compliance organizations have focused their own accountability activities. Asia is a massive place with a kaleidoscopic array of social responsibility traditions; some decades old while others have developed more recently by virtue of the myriad of compliance activities that have taken place within their borders from Western organizations.

In this piece, we take a closer look into social responsibility attitudes among Asian consumers and analyze what opportunities and challenges they could open up for the global social compliance community. Several studies have indicated that Asian consumers are in fact among the most socially-conscious in the world. A 2014 study conducted by consumer research group Nielsen found that 64 percent of survey respondents in the Asia-Pacific region and 63 percent of survey respondents in the Middle East/Africa region (which includes Southwest Asia) indicated a propensity to buy from socially responsible brands, as compared to 42 percent and 40 percent for the United States and Europe, respectively. What’s more interesting is the same survey indicated similar proportions of respondents in the Asia/Pacific and Middle East/Africa made sustainable purchasing decisions based on relevant product labels. These attitudes have also translated into sales, with brands that use sustainability on their packaging reporting greater growth than those that did not. Further, age is also an important factor here as millennials have professed sustainability and responsibility of every kind to be the mantra of their lives. This is important given that 60 percent of the world’s millennials live in Asia, one-third of them in India which itself is already one of the top consumer markets in the world.

This trend of social consciousness among Asian consumers becomes even more apparent when viewed country by country. For instance, a report by Nippon Life Insurance Company’s research arm traces the origins of Japan’s social conscious movement back to the industrial boom of the 1960s and 1970s when pollution began to take its toll on the country. In China, that country’s GoldenBee Management Consulting Co., which tracks the development of corporate social responsibility (CSR), indicated a significant increase in the number of CSR reports released by Chinese companies since 2009, which are also affecting consumer attitudes. Avery Dennison’s Retail Branding and Information Solutions (RBIS) division recently released the results of a study that indicated 87 percent of Chinese consumers surveyed stated they were “interested” in buying garments made in a socially responsible way compared to 50 percent of Americans. Interestingly, a report on Alibaba’s recent “Gateway Conference” in the United States indicated that many Chinese consumers prefer American brands because they are perceived as has having better quality. In India, a recent Unilever study found that 88 percent of consumers indicated they felt better when buying sustainably-produced products, partially because of their direct exposure to the negative effects of unsustainable business practices. Clearly there is a thirst on the world’s largest continent for socially responsible manufactured goods.

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What does all of this mean for compliance practitioners?

It means that enormous potential exists in Asia to grow socially responsible manufacturing and consumption. Companies and non-profit groups alike operating in the social responsibility space have a unique opportunity to connect more consumers than ever with responsibly-made goods. The prodigious proliferation of mobile devices across Asia may present an opportunity in this regard as it would allow apparel and textile consumers instant access to this information, letting them see where a specific item was made and what certifications that production facility may hold, all at the point of purchase. Asia’s kaleidoscope of political environments also means that compliance practitioners must be flexible enough to adapt in each of these environments while remaining rooted enough in a concrete standard to be globally credible. Independence, objectivity, and a firm grounding in the rule of law are essential for success.

It’s no secret that social compliance has become an imperative for anyone operating in the fashion business. What has changed though is that as many of the world’s major garment producing regions have grown in both consumer strength and social consciousness, so too has the demand for verifiable socially-responsible production in all markets. It’s now up to the compliance industry to ensure that systems and standards are in place that can keep pace with these changing demands.

Russell Jowell is communications manager for WRAP, an independent, objective, non-profit team of global social compliance experts dedicated to promoting safe, lawful, humane, and ethical manufacturing around the world through certification and education.