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Walk Before You Run: The Value of Understanding Compliance Before Going “Beyond”

“Beyond compliance” has become a trendy term in responsible sourcing circles these days. It means different things to different people, but most definitions share the idea of jettisoning the prevailing audit-centric social compliance paradigm and moving on to something “beyond” it. And that “something” usually tends to involve doing away with compliance audits entirely and focusing instead on things like training, remediation or capacity building.

As justification, proponents say despite being around for roughly two decades, compliance audits haven’t really moved the needle when it comes to improving working conditions, which is why they’re seeking something else.

There are two fundamental flaws with that justification. The first is a factual one. While we are certainly not yet in a world where working conditions have uniformly improved to the levels we may all want to see, it is entirely incorrect to say they haven’t improved at all from where they were two decades ago.

In the garment manufacturing sector in particular, working conditions in a typical factory are much better today than they were in the late ’90s and early 2000s, and for that we have the old school audit-centric social compliance paradigm to thank. So, while there is still plenty that needs to be done, the needle has certainly been moving in the right direction.

The other flaw is one of misapplied expectations.

Relying on audits to be the sole solution to the problem of subpar working conditions is not only inappropriate, it is unproductive. In this sense, the audit-centric social compliance paradigm may have become a victim of its own success by causing people to think that, because audits did lead to some improvements, the answer lay entirely in doing more audits.

As any long-time practitioner in this space will tell you, an audit, if done right, is a diagnostic tool. It will provide you with relevant information about performance, but it will not singlehandedly improve that performance.

In this vein, I often cite the adage that one does not fatten a pig by weighing it. We want to fatten the pig (working conditions), but simply weighing (auditing) it won’t get us there. We must feed that pig to fatten it. But we also absolutely need to weigh it in order to determine just how fat it is now, so we can develop the diet necessary to then bring it to the desired level of rotundity (which can only be verified by a subsequent weighing).

That, then, is the right way to think about audits: as the informational foundation upon which progress can then be built. Just the process of getting the information does have some positive effects (as the past two decades have shown us; if nothing else, all those audits significantly raised the level of awareness about responsible practices at the factory level), but that information has to be acted upon in order for actual, sustainable progress to occur. Conversely, without that information, you cannot really measure what (or even whether any) progress has been made, let alone actually drive such progress.

And that is the basis of my objection to the “beyond compliance” thinking.

We cannot simply abandon the foundational diagnostic approach, and focus instead of building capacity for whatever hot topic is currently making the headlines in the social compliance arena. Sure, splashy and topical special projects can be attractive from a public relations point of view and are probably easier to implement within a given organization because of the high-profile visibility factor, but such opportunistic projects don’t actually drive overall progress.

In truth, perhaps the biggest reason that “beyond compliance” has gotten popular is that the old audit-centric paradigm is boring. It’s about basics. It’s about getting to compliance with minimum standards and local laws. It’s about ensuring factories are doing the things that they really should be doing anyway.

But here’s the rub: you must get the basics right, and that isn’t a one-and-done proposition.

The best artists and athletes keep practicing the fundamentals of their craft even after mastering them. And as the other adage goes, you cannot run before you walk. As a practical matter, we would be in a much better place overall if all the players focus on getting the basics right than if a handful of well-intentioned ones focus on well-meaning moonshots.

So, yes, there is value in all those activities that the “beyond compliance” camp lauds, but to suggest that there is a need to leave compliance audits behind and go “beyond” them because there is no value in that activity is misguided. There is always going to be a need for audits, and it is critical that we understand the value of compliance before attempting to go beyond. The way to reconcile things is to think of the right approach as not being “beyond compliance,” rather “compliance and beyond.”

 

Avedis Seferian is the president & CEO of Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production (WRAP) and a recognized expert in the area of social compliance and responsible sourcing. He has extensive knowledge of social responsibility issues within the highly complex worldwide supply chains of the apparel, textile and footwear sectors and often speaks on topics in this field at different forums around the world and contributes to leading trade publications and news outlets

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