Change needs more than simple certification

Since the 80’s there is a growing awareness of the sometimes poor conditions under which –western- consumer goods are produced. Pressure groups, press and consumers showed growing concern and asked companies to take their responsibility on topics like child labour, forced labour and pollution. These concerns lead to the set-up of codes-of-conducts and standards in many cases combined with third party certifications and product labels.

Specifically the fashion supply chain is under high risk cotton cultivation as well as textile processing is mostly taking place in developing countries. The recent case of child labour in cotton cultivation in Burkina Faso related to the Victoria’s Secret collection is just one example. Other recent cases are deathly fire accidents in Bangladeshi sewing units, toxic chemicals in Chinese dyeing house effluents and bonded labour of young women in South Indian spinning units.

The systems currently used within the fashion industry as well as other product chains to “solve” above described issues, are mostly simple certification systems. They are top-down models based on the control of farms and suppliers in order to protect brands from loss of reputation and/or as an answer to concern of western NGOs, consumers and the brands themselves. This compliance based approach leads to rules (the codes of conduct/standards), procedures to enforce them (audits) and punishment (no certificate and/or no business). Control based systems have had proven effects in improving e.g. health and safety situation on the work floor. However, in many more complex situations, like wages, child labour and freedom of association, these systems do not provide the solution. Moreover, control often leads compliance driven attitude and the instinctive response of making sure not to get caught. There is no emphasis on change and creating a positive long term impact.

The reliance on control systems does not only partly explain the limited effectiveness, it also explains the occurrence of fraud, audit fatigue and feelings of cynicism and humiliation on the supplier side when control systems are used to manage complex issues like discrimination, overtime or freedom of association. Other criticism on control based methods are: the central role of (not always capable) internal or external auditors, insufficient attention to the root causes related to the non compliances, insufficient involvement of local organizations as unions and NGOs, lack of worker involvement, buying practices which do not support or undermine improvement of working conditions, the lack of a business case for suppliers and brands and the lack of knowledge of major stakeholders (brands, workers and factory management).   There is a need based on shared values and the encouragement of brands and suppliers to commit to long term processes to create real change. Values based systems can be characterized by needs based, clear shared vision, transparency, capacity building and change/results prevailing above compliance. This also requires additional forms of communication. A product label is not sufficient, story telling about the progress made may be more important. When the process goes beyond control and window dressing and really follows up on ethical concerns and consistently aligns organizational and ethical practices, genuine commitment will emerge. Instead of a control culture, an ethical culture based on leadership, reward systems, fair buying behaviour, open dialogue on social problems and accountability of all parties starts to exist.   Solidaridad promotes this new approach to increase the sustainability of supply chains, both in the design of standards, verification and communication around it, as well as our support programs with farmers and at the work floor. The Solidaridad fashion program includes capacity building projects with cotton farmers and processing factories in developing countries. These programs are undertaken in partnership with frontrunner brands and retailers. Solidaridad is also active partner, in system design as well as project implementation, in innovative initiatives as MADE-BY and BCI.