With Covid-19 travel restrictions in place, retailers and inspectors unfortunately have limited access to their factories and production facilities, making it harder to identify any potential problems that could arise and determine their root causes. But across the supply chain, leaders are now taking to remote audits to bring quality control and compliance to the factory floor, even from a distance.
Ross Nova, head of global compliance at L.L. Bean, said in a panel at the R/Evolution Sourcing Journal Summit that his top concern at the start of the pandemic was the inability to travel to any factories in person, alongside the newfound question, “How do we turn an in-person process into a remote process?”
Nova said that despite the lack of face to face meetings, L.L. Bean’s remote auditing process has worked “surprisingly well” due to the renewed focus on more objective bits of data that are still accessible to auditors, whether it’s a timecard or payroll. He noted that some struggles continue to take place are when smaller factories have limited Wi-Fi (or none at all), or signal loss occurs when moving from one building to another.
“My recommendation is as you roll this out in your own company and factories, practice with that remote technology, especially with the factory beforehand,” Nova said. “You may want to consider if it’s important enough to you, maybe a small investment to help improve the Wi-Fi, make sure they have the computers and phones available to help facilitate that day. Technology is really good when it works, and when it doesn’t it can turn an eight-hour audit day into a 10 hour audit day.”
The use of technology in the audit process can put a spotlight on the more obvious issues regarding the impact on the workers, whether it was the factories shutting down due to loss of orders, or the factories staying open alongside other concerns such as worker hours and pay.
This ultimately can help companies get a better read on where priorities must continue to lie when it comes to cost evaluation. One of the unfortunate byproducts of the pandemic has been budget cuts for factories, particularly in areas that may have been considered as “nice to haves,” whether it was social programs for employees or even overtime pay, according to Michael Bland, senior director of Qima, which handles quality control and social compliance initiatives for suppliers.
Bland said in the panel that in the third quarter, Qima’s ethical audit scores, which are their reviews of client suppliers that track elements such as hygiene, health and safety, waste management, child and young labor, forced labor and hours/wages, are down by 4.5 percent from last year.
Francesco Pilenga, executive director of fabric and textiles producer Pettenati Centro America, noted that since his company operates in El Salvador and 99 percent of his garment manufacturer partners operate in either El Salvador or Honduras, the travel restrictions didn’t create much of an issue on the supply side from a communication standpoint. The negative impacts didn’t surface with the company’s more established brand partners either, but instead with less-established, informal customers.
“More of these brands usually need to be seen face to face when you’re actually dealing with designers, more than sourcing and materials people,” Pilenga said. “That was something that couldn’t be done and you can send fabric and have Zoom calls but it’s never like being in a room together.”
Pilenga also admitted that he had doubts about the full-scale capabilities of an auditing process conducted at a 60,000-square-meter factory through video on a mobile device.
When it comes to auditing, Bland said that in today’s environment, the process is not just one person’s responsibility.
“Everyone needs to make an investment,” Bland said. “Yes, the factory, yes the supplier, but also the brand and also the third parties. We all need to work together, because the point is to improve both the quality of the products and the lives of the workers in the supply chain. Whenever we talk about whatever the expenses are toward helping the factories meet your guidelines, to me it’s not really a cost, it’s an investment.”
Beyond the technology investments, the human-to-human connection is still reliant on trust, with Nova saying that his company has made it a point to ease up on oversight and enable the factories to concentrate on getting their jobs done. In most situations, the better scores L.L. Bean gets from its factories, the less it sends auditors to check up on their progress.
“I’d love to see brands step back and start to give credit where it’s due,” Nova said. “I don’t need to audit certain factories every year, and I think that going to help.”
All the sessions from this year’s Sourcing Journal Summit, R/Evolution, are available on-demand for the first time. Follow this link for more information.