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Three Decades of Promises: Data Shows an Industry Slow to Improve

This is the first part of a limited series exclusively on Sourcing Journal of research provided by Cornell University’s New Conversations Project. The New Conversations Project is dedicated to independent research and action that seeks to discover what works on a global scale to end abusive labor practices.


For 30 years, apparel brands have vowed to police their supply chains to root out unsafe conditions and worker abuse.

Traditional methods of labor standards improvement have been largely ineffective. Public regulation in countries that produce low-cost, labor-intensive products for global corporations and private regulation approaches—built around codes of conduct and auditing by global corporations—have all failed to significantly improve workers’ lives. Research on labor standards in global supply chains over the last decade, especially in the apparel and footwear industries, shows relatively little improvement on core labor standards such as freedom of association and collective bargaining, or in measures such as wages, hours of work and safety and health.

The puzzle here is that even as the ineffectiveness of private regulation approaches became apparent—whether through academic research or the experience of practitioners—these approaches have been widely adopted by global buyers and their suppliers in apparel and other industries. And the old conversations between workers, employers, brands and governments about how to ‘govern labor’ in global support chains have changed little.

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Actors in need of new approaches find themselves awash in data, bombarded with pilot projects and processes. They are left to rely primarily on ‘results’ based on soft analyses of policies and effort as opposed to hard measures of impacts and results. And looming beyond these conversations are coming changes in technology, environment, migration, public health, and politics that are altering the way work along global supply chains is done.

There are, of course, examples of successful schemes. A handful of them are large-scale but most are small-scale, carefully shaped, watered and pruned like corporate social responsibility equivalents of bonzai trees.

Well, how about the rest? To diagnose the critical problems in private and public regulation approaches, the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations created the New Conversations Project. The project conducts extensive field research and organizes data from global companies, multi-stakeholder initiatives and others. The Cornell team then pulls together fragmented constituencies—brands, suppliers, unions, civil society, governments, investors—for new conversations built on the data and analyses. The goal is a new generation of strategies that the evidence says can produce better outcomes for large numbers of workers.

New research

In the three years since its founding, Cornell NCP has garnered access to previously unavailable data of leading buyers, their suppliers, audit firms and multi-stakeholder initiatives to conduct analyses of their investments in labor programs and their results. Their research on private regulation reveals a significant ‘de-coupling’ between the practices of private regulation of global firms with their expected outcomes—improved working conditions and respect for labor rights.

This decoupling is partly due to opacity induced by the lack of analyses and public sharing of analyses by global firms.  There is significant “behavioral invisibility.” This means that the actors in private regulation—brands, suppliers, unions, governments—have little knowledge about what are, empirically, the best practices.

Consequently, among the profusion and confusion of private regulation activities, firms do not know what works and what does not. This series will unpack these analyses from Cornell NCP and others and decode the sometimes-obscure-sounding academic research that points the industry—buyers, suppliers, unions and regulators—toward new solutions. This will include a close look at the impacts of transparency and ‘labor performance disclosure’ for working conditions. We will apply these findings to changes in both public and private regulation of supply chains—mandatory due diligence and legal liability for buyers, non-financial reporting requirements, new trade-labor standards, and upstream tracing and compliance. And more.

The new pace of change makes closing the gap between academic research and industry players a priority. Our next article will spell out what new research reveals about a chronic problem for workers, suppliers and brands: the costs of de-coupling of sourcing from labor compliance.

For a more in-depth look into this research, please visit the New Conversations Project.