Many things are moving in the social sustainability landscape this spring, but will they contribute to real improvement for working families world-wide? This question is relevant also for four international events during the next few weeks that I am preparing for. They all deal with global supply chains, but from very different angles.
The Global Social Compliance Programme GSCP meets in Berlin at the end of the month, both for its own meeting and for a multi-stakeholder conference arranged together with the German Government. Later in the week, the Advisory Board of Social Accountability International SAI (SA8000) meets for three days in Florence, Italy. After the First of May weekend, Germany’s multi-stakeholder Textile Alliance (Textilbündnis) convenes a working meeting in Frankfurt a.M. to continue preparing its principles and work programme, also hosted by the Federal Government.
GSCP Brings Leading Brands and Retailers to Sustainability Work
The Global Social Compliance Programme GSCP is first in line with a members’ meeting in Berlin at the end of the month. This initiative represents many of the worlds largest brands and retailers and has been driving convergence in a very much split corporate responsibility landscape. Its work builds on a reference code and a number of tools that set high standards and provide guidance for sustainability work. An intention is that global supply chain actors could recognise each others’ social audit results and cooperate more actively in the important remediation and capacity building.
GSCP is now pretty much done with creating this foundation and is increasingly trying to support and promote real change for the better. Much attention is still given to developing management systems for social and environmental sustainability, both in supplier and buyer companies. Monitoring conditions and their development through social and environmental auditing continues to be an important and necessary pillar for these activities.
Public – Private Cooperation Supports Sustainable Development Goals
A major GSCP achievement has been to raise the sustainability awareness of the Consumer Goods Forum CGF and its members. These companies are among the largest in the world and can play a critically important role for global supply chain sustainability.
The second event does in fact reflect these developments. In a letter last summer to the German G7 Presidency, the CGF member companies committed themselves to participate in the world-wide work for the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). This promise is now followed up at an international Conference arranged in Berlin with the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development BMZ, directly following the GSCP meeting.
Action on Forced Labour Opens Concrete Cooperation
The concrete human rights and sustainability commitment chosen by the CGF brands and retailers for joint action is to remove all forced labour from their supply chains. This does not mean that the other human and workers’ rights would be left out. The obligation to apply the UN Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights is still on the agenda even if the particular issue of forced labour has been singled out as a specific aim.
To support the credibility of the entire CSR field, these large companies should now say clearly what they intend to do and deliver substantial results reasonably fast. Work on this is in fact going on, involving also GSCP.
Important resources must also be allocated to define the major problem areas and address the issues effectively. Walking away from suppliers who cannot prove that their own supply chains are not clean will not be an alternative. Forced labour is found from high seas fishing and cotton growing to mining and manufacturing, all areas that need to be addressed. A special challenge will be to go deeper down in the supply chains than to the final suppliers only. This has not been the strong point of most sustainability schemes and initiatives and will need particular attention.
I have been a member of the Advisory Board of GSCP since the beginning of this initiative. During these years I have seen how many of the large buyer companies have acted effectively in support of workers’ rights in their supply chains. There have been both interesting and innovative approaches to this which would have merited much more public attention. I have no doubts that – with a serious engagement – we will see much of these also in the activities against forced labour.
Recognising the importance of this CSR work and the social audit based supply chain engagement of buyer companies can contribute significantly to improving conditions for the working families concerned. This does not mean that we can be complacent. Criticism is important as it helps to push things forward, but it also needs to recognise the importance of the engagement and participation of global brands and retailers. The BMZ Berlin Conference will hopefully contribute to a broader coalition building and cooperation instead of an often ideologically influenced negativism against business driven action.
Social Accountability International SAI Continues as Innovative Leader in Sustainability Field
Social Accountability International SAI meets immediately after this for its Advisory Board meeting. The three day event hosted by Gucci in Florence, Italy is also the starting point for a new stage of the organisation’s development. With a new President and CEO Jane Hwang and a new President of the Board of Directors Dan Henkle, SAI is well prepared to secure a leading role as an innovative and highly respected multi-stakeholder initiative. The SA8000 Social Standard and the detailed application guidelines make this into a unique and recognised benchmark for best sustainability practice.
I have had the privilege of working with SAI and its founder and President Alice Tepper Marlin over many years, both in the Board of Directors and the Advisory Board. This is where I have learned what sustainability and social responsibility in global supply chains really means. Alice and her team, where also Jane Hwang has played an important role, have built up a solid organisation which is well positioned to meet today’s challenges and make use of the opportunities to effectively promote human rights at work.
More reflections on SAI and the Florence meeting soon…