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How to Audit Factories During Lockdowns and Social Distancing

The world is facing a scary and unprecedented challenge in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The situation continues to evolve at a blistering pace. I am writing this on the March 23 and fully expect that the scenario will be significantly different tomorrow, let alone the day after.

Even as things are seemingly starting to improve in China, they are getting far worse in most of the rest of the world (especially Europe and the United States) and the latest information suggests an increasingly bleak picture for the immediate future.

Needless to say, dealing with the public health challenge presented by the novel coronavirus remains the single most important priority. But the challenges to the world’s economic health are mounting day by day, and one activity feeling the pinch keenly is sewn products sourcing. With consumer demand for clothing plummeting as a result of directives limiting social movement, we are seeing major brands and retailers cutting back on orders, with reverberations being felt all through the supply chain. And for those buyers who are still able to proceed, the question of how they can inspect their vendor facilities is a pressing one, as those same directives are making it impossible for auditors to visit factories in large swaths of the world.

All this is taking place against the backdrop of a sourcing environment that has over the past few years become ever more attuned to the importance of responsible purchasing and manufacturing practices and increasingly acclimated to the heightened transparency being demanded (and made possible) by the ubiquity of social media. How, then, can one proceed with responsible sourcing—with regards both to the placing/honoring of orders, and the validation of socially compliant working conditions—under the dire realities of the day?

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There is no clear and easy answer to that question.

As with all facets of life under these circumstances, we must learn to adapt and do the best we can give the conditions we are facing. Above all, we must all understand that we are in this together. For sourcing activities, this means recognizing the inter-dependency within the supply chain. Tough economic times call for difficult decisions, and some businesses will have no choice but to hunker down and protect their own employees through harsh measures like cancelling orders or extending terms of payment further out than normal.

But where possible, the pain ought to shared.

A brand making a partial payment on an order that has already been produced but it now no longer wants can make all the difference in the world to the ability of the factory that made that order being able to pay its garment workers and stay in business. That factory, in turn, can carry the cost of holding onto that shipment for a while, until the brand can take delivery once normal life resumes.

And what about social compliance audits during this period of restrictions being set by governments that are making it difficult, if not impossible, to conduct factory visits?

This is a particularly salient question for organizations like mine, with a core function of certifying working conditions in production facilities around the world. Once again, there is no clear and easy answer. Once again, it is about adapting and making the most of what we can, including some advantages provided by modern technology. In the absence of the ability to visit factories in person, can we do so remotely? In the absence of the ability to talk to employees directly, can we get a sense of the workers’ voice through surveys and similar platforms?

We are all still exploring these options and learning as we do, but our early experience at WRAP gives us reason to believe that while these tools do not represent a panacea, they do provide the opportunity for certain parts of the problem to be addressed.

The vast bulk of any compliance program (be it a brand’s vendor base or a certification program) is made up of recurring factories (for WRAP, this figure is roughly 70-75% in a given year). These are factories that have been physically visited in the recent past and have provided some basis for ongoing confidence in their systems. Therefore, it should be possible to make allowances with regards to being able to validate, at least temporarily, their social compliance practices (in order to give the green light for buyers to engage with them) without actually conducting an onsite visit.

As such, for the subset of factories that will need to renew their certification (which, as mentioned, forms the majority of factories in the program), WRAP is offering an alternative process to help them extend their current certifications by four months upon the successful completion of a desktop audit. This will hopefully allow them to continue their operations during this crisis.

Once the situation returns to normal, they can (upon the expiration of the extension period) then return to renew their certification as usual (and in the spirit of sharing the pain, WRAP will extend the paid registration period—which is usually six months—for all factories until Dec. 31, 2020, so they will not have to pay again once they do so).

The above is an example of a measure that, while it may not solve everything, should at least prove helpful during these challenging times.

We should all continue to explore additional options and address the harder questions still left unanswered (such as, how can one certify social compliance at facilities seeking certification for the very first time without an actual on-site visit? Remote audits don’t quite allow for the necessary kind of assessment of working conditions; you can’t smell volatile organic compounds by video, as just one of many examples. As for worker surveys, there remain broader challenges with regards to the difficulty in doing deeper dives if such surveys do reveal potential non-compliances).

But even as we struggle with these difficulties, the important point is to focus on addressing those aspects of this crisis that we can and to do so with the same degree of enthusiastic adaptability and positivity that characterize many of the amazing entrepreneurs that have made the sewn products industry such a successful one.

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