An industry-wide general standard of compliance may be a lofty goal for a sector that’s still so secretive about its supply chain practices, but some brands are at least agreeing to work on one testing standard for social and labor compliance.
The Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) launched a Social and Labor Convergence Project in October with the aim of developing an industry-wide, standardized methodology for social and labor performance assessment in apparel and footwear chains.
Janet Mensink, SAC’s project director for social and labor practices, said, “I think there is a paradigm shift right now, it’s more towards collaboration. If we really want to change this industry for the better, we have to exchange best practices, share measurement tools, management tools and ultimately collaborate in capacity building at the factory.”
The Convergence Project would create a unified method of assessment that would reduce costs of duplicitous auditing, with the savings instead being freed up to improve social welfare for workers.
Mensink likened the project to the medical sector to better explain SAC’s efforts.
“What we’re trying to get an agreement on and consensus for is one test and one lab protocol, and it’s not saying that everything should get the same treatment,” she said. “It would be one test methodology that everyone us using that you don’t need to duplicate over and over again, and each ‘doctor’ can specify their own treatment.”
Compliance related audits have been on the rise in recent years, with more companies demanding more standards to avoid scandals like the Rana Plaza building collapse that took lives and landed brands doing business there in a negative light.
And with each brand implementing its own version of what compliance standards should be, manufacturers are spending beaucoup money to manage all of the audits—which no doubt sends costs up and consumes unnecessary resources.
So far, apparel industry leaders like H&M, Nike, VF Corp, Levi Strauss & Co., PVH, Gap and Target have signed on to the Convergence Project, and the Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production (WRAP) and auditing firms Bureau Veritas and SGS are also on board.
In a joint public statement released in October, undersigned brands said, “We, signatories to this Statement, recognize that the proliferation of differing codes, audits, protocols and approaches are hampering the improvement of social and labor performance within global supply chains. We believe that there is both a need and an opportunity for collaboration.”
H&M told Sourcing Journal, “H&M strongly believes that the sustainability challenges we are facing in the textile supply chain requires joint efforts since all parties have a shared responsibility and have a stake in it,” Erik Karlsson, H&M sustainability business expert said. “This was one of the key reasons H&M joined SAC as a founding member in 2010. When it comes to the social convergence group, specifically, we acknowledge the challenge to agree on a common standard. However, the industry has changed, the experiences from different initiatives (e.g. Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals, The Accord and Alliance in Bangladesh) show that the industry has taken significant steps forward and are willing to find joint solutions for a common good. H&M therefore supports the SAC initiative for common social standards in the supply chain.”
For now, SAC is working on creating a cohesive plan for testing social conditions in supplying units, like working hours, age of workers, wages, and referring to the core International Labour Organization (ILO) conventions on compliance.
The first question the project will have to answer is: Which questions are we going to ask the manufacturers to assess the social and labor conditions?
Project members will have to come to a consensus on how they will go about collecting the audit information, too, and what qualifications the auditor needs.
The idea, according to Mensink, is that if one buyer has done an audit of a supplier, other buyers doing—or interested in doing—business there can see the and trust the audit results.
“At a manufacturers level, instead of four or five different audits of probably different qualities,” Mensink said, “We can do one really good assessment that’s also driving performance and it will save up money that can be spent for improvement measures at the work floor.”
Mensink said SAC will announce the next set of signatories to the project, which includes more auditing firms like BSI and Intertek, early next year.
“It sets the tone that even the audit firms are saying we need to change this,” she said. “In the short term you could say they have in interest in the more audits the better, but it will set the focus on the quality of the assessments.”
By mid-2016 the first prototype for moving the unified assessment project forward is expected to be ready.
“The ultimate goal is to improve workers’ lives, and the way we think we can reach that, or make a breakthrough in terms of where these efforts were in the past, is to divert the focus from more checking to more action,” Mensink said.