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Could ‘Symphonization’ Save Supply Chain Social Compliance?

Often, fashion fails to look outside of itself. But in a pandemic-riddled world, it may benefit the industry to take a nod from the music sector as it works toward recovery.

Good music is not made up of just a single note, and a whole chorus singing that single note does nothing to improve it. Beautiful music is a result of many instruments, each making their own unique sounds, playing different notes but doing so in harmony.

Harmony is what those of us with roles to play in modern supply chains have been seeking for the past two decades, particularly when it comes to the issue of social compliance audits. While still a relatively young arena, the proliferation of codes of conduct has been exponential. Nearly all brands and retailers deploy one, and many have their own internal programs to monitor them. They sometimes work with (but can often be separate from) other for-profit service providers, as well as several independent non-profit entities that provide compliance monitoring solutions.

As a result, the industry has been plagued by audit fatigue. Multiple attempts under multiple initiatives have been made to tackle this. Yet the harmony that we all agree is needed—and that we all so earnestly seek—continues to prove frustratingly elusive.

I have been involved in this space for nearly two decades now and my experience suggests the core underlying reason is a fundamental misapprehension of the term harmony—a misapprehension with two components.

The first is what I call the single-note fallacy, which I have already alluded to. Previous attempts to harmonize have typically involved a call to coalesce around a “let’s all just do it this one way” banner, the implication being that a single player/entity or a single standard has the “right” answer, with its champions telling everyone to do it that way and no other. Harmonization, under this approach, means everyone singing the same single note. But however noble the intentions behind such efforts may be, as the old adage goes, “there’s more than one way to skin a cat” (or, if you want to cast it in apparel terms, there’s more than one way to knit a sweater).

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It should come as no surprise, then, that the single-note approach to harmonization simply has not worked. Its history is riddled with one failed attempt following another, so much so that the very term “harmonization” has now come to be a loaded one, carrying a host of negative baggage.

The second component of the misapprehension is what I call the locus fallacy, because harmonization attempts, despite ostensibly being about supply chain management, have tended not to think of the supply chain holistically, but to treat it as having one end in opposition to the other. Even if some attempts have made a point of involving representatives from across the supply chain, they operate on the assumption that the “rules” are set at the buyer end and go upstream from there. But the truth is the underlying challenge is one for the supply chain as a whole, and as another old adage has it, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.

Harmony remains the goal we all want to achieve. But our past experience is proof that we need to find a better way to get there than our past failed attempts at harmonization. Over the past few years, there has been some progress with regard to both components, but we are still largely stuck in our old ways of thinking.

Now that a pandemic has come along and upended the entire world and how we do things, in the spirit of never wasting a crisis, the industry has at hand an opportunity to re-think how it has been approaching social compliance management, recognizing the shortcomings and inefficiencies in the old ways.

This paper on Symphonization: The True Path to Harmonious Supply Chain Social Compliance Management, proposes a new paradigm for supply chain social compliance management, one with that true goal–harmony–but with a focus on what it is actually about. Harmony must, by definition, be a holistic notion, looking at the supply chain collectively, a point of particular importance as social compliance efforts are now increasingly expanding beyond the first tier. And harmony is not everyone doing the same thing; it is different things being done in concert.

So I turn back to the image I began with. An orchestra is not multiple instruments playing the same note. It is different instruments, being played differently by different people, combining their different sounds into a symphony. The path to true harmony is not harmonization as it has come to be defined by our experiences of the past decade and a half. It is, instead, symphonization. Yes, the word may be made up, but it is what we need now–to make up a whole new approach, since the old one has failed.

There should be a new approach to social compliance in the post-pandemic world, one based on a handful of specialized, professional, independent organizations providing a menu of options for the supply chain as a whole instead of having duplicative proprietary programs. The new model also calls upon those independent organizations to work together in concert to be more efficient when it comes to where existing expertise and coverage lie.

A small handful of brands and retailers in the supply chain have already adopted this menu-of-options approach, and the success they are enjoying is testimony that it isn’t only theoretically sound, but is practically sound, too. It is time for this approach to become the industry norm, rather than the exception.

This is an invitation to make symphonization happen, an invitation aimed at the entire supply chain. But in keeping with the aforementioned point, I represent but one instrument in this orchestra. As such, while the idea of symphonization applies to all aspects of supply chain management, the focus is mainly on the social compliance aspect. The invitation, while open to all, is therefore chiefly directed at those who promulgate codes of conduct and those who operate under them. I also extend a special invitation to our immediate peer organizations, so that we join in support of this new approach and work together to finally achieve the goal of reducing audit fatigue and establishing a truly harmonious social compliance paradigm.

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