Supply chain social responsibility is on the move this spring. The tripartite ILO International Labour Conference will be a high point with governments, employers and trade unions debating how best to secure human rights and promote decent work. Countries around the world are following up on the UN Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights, setting their own National Action Plans. Many sustainability schemes and initiatives are developing and stepping up their own work. The professional social auditors have established their own organisation APSCA to secure and develop audit quality.
It is important to ensure that the activities and programmes are efficient and help bring about positive change. The attention to policy and structures should not move away the focus from real and concrete efforts to improve labour conditions. Taking care of the tools and using them effectively should complement each other, not compete about our attention.
We need broad engagement for sustainable supply chains
Public-private cooperation is an important element of any effective sustainability efforts, also in consumer countries that work on their own social and environmental responsibilities in global supply chains.
Governments need to influence supplier countries to play an active role in ensuring human rights and decent working conditions. They must also set rules for buyer companies and other supply chain participants to follow. Bringing together business and stakeholders around joint objectives and tasks, such as Germany is doing in its textile alliance – – Bündnis für nachhaltige Textilien – is equally essential.
Buyer brands and retailers can and must use their commercial power and know-how to require and help their business partners to behave responsibly. Carefully designed buying practices and agreements can both encourage and enable this.
Trade unions and non-governmental organisations are important partners in this work, enabling and helping workers to participate in setting labour conditions.
GSCP has created a solid base for convergence and cooperation
The Global Social Compliance Programme GSCP has done much to help brands and retailers translate their sustainability commitments to concrete action. The GSCP Reference Code and a collection of sustainability tools now form a solid base for effective sustainability engagement. They were all created through a multi-stakeholder process and aim at securing full respect for universal human rights. Furthermore, they set minimum requirements for decent working and employment conditions, based on ILO International Labour Conventions. Key toolbox elements deal with sustainability management systems, both for suppliers and for buyer companies. Others cover all aspects of social auditing and auditor competence, setting minimum standards that should ensure reliable audits.
GSCP was created to drive an upward convergence of social responsibility codes and standards, based on the ambitious reference code and the application guidelines in the toolbox. This would enable mutual recognition of social audit results and help direct more resources to capacity building and remediation at supplier workplaces. The GSCP equivalence process was developed for the analysis and benchmarking that serves this process.
This important initiative by many of the world’s largest brands and retailers has had a much broader impact than only driving its core convergence objective. We have seen a remarkable growth of both awareness and engagement in the business community with activities levels stepped up across many industries. A good and welcome example is the commitment made by the Consumer Goods Forum CGF to play an active role in working for the UN Sustainable Development Goals SDG’s.
The first concrete joint measure by the CGF companies will be launching of an ambitious and welcome project to eliminate forced labour from their supply chains. This will also be reflected in the work of GSCP now that the Reference Code, toolbox and equivalence process are in place. This does not mean that other parts of the Code would be neglected, they will continue to be as important as ever on the agendas and programmes of the individual brands and retailers.
Sustainability schemes and initiatives update their own approaches
Buyers need to be actively engaged if we really want to secure human rights and decent working conditions in global supply chains. Corporate social responsibility CSR schemes and initiatives can contribute to the quality and efficiency of this engagement. To achieve this, both transparency and full civil society engagement are needed.
There have been big changes and efficiency boosts also on the standard and code application side. As an example, Social Accountability Accreditation Services SAAS has further increased the reliability of the already demanding SA8000 Social Standard. The sustainability auditing industry itself has established a new organisation to safeguard audit quality and reliability. The Association for Professional Social Compliance Auditors (APSCA) is an important initiative and I was happy to accept an invitation to join their Stakeholder Board.
Also other sustainability programmes such as Social Accountability International SAI and the Business Social Compliance Initiative BSCI have updated their codes or standards. They have continued to add more emphasis on remediation and capacity building and have developed new innovative approaches for this. Others, such as the Better Cotton Initiative BCI and the Global Organic Textile Standard GOTS are also working on code and standard revisions and the Fairtrade movement has just released a new textile standard.
Improvements in conditions are the test for schemes and initiatives
To improve the instruments is of course not enough. Supply chain workers are still too often working under sub-standard conditions and paid far below what is needed for a decent life. Voices that reject voluntary business initiatives and call for far reaching legislation instead will grow stronger unless concrete and significant improvements at supplier workplaces are made at a faster pace.
There is today a genuine disappointment over the slowness or lack of visible improvements in labour and social conditions in global supply chains. These sentiments go also beyond the many advocacy organisations and trade unions that are actively voicing their frustrations.
The best way for the business community to respond is to step up their contributions to bring about real improvements of human rights and labour conditions in the supply chain. The new initiative Consumer Goods Forum forced labour initiative is a good example and can lead to substantial positive change. It is a sign of success also of the patient work done by GSCP to build awareness and drive convergence in the sustainability work of global buyers. The challenge is now to use the significant commercial power of these world class companies to translate this commitment into real action. GSCP will have an important role in making this possible, as will also cooperating sustainability schemes and initiatives.
Sustainability initiatives and mainstream labour relations can complement each other
The best approach to improve labour conditions includes organised social partners, effectively applied labour legislation, collective agreements and an efficient labour inspection system. As this is still a distant dream in large parts of the world also other approaches are needed. The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights is a manifestation of this.
Voluntary schemes and initiatives are there also to help buying brands and retailers respect their obligations. The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights could hardly be applied without these business-driven or multi-stakeholder programmes which build on social auditing and focus on remediation and capacity building.
We should remember that all leading schemes demand full respect for freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining. Also unions and advocacy organisations could and should use this for supporting organising efforts.
Colder labour relations climate hurts supply chain cooperation
Buying brands and retailers are targeted also without valid reasons and the CSR concept itself is put in question. Often this relates to anti-globalisation drives and is more general and political than referring to concrete supply chain issues. It does also reflect an overall polarisation of opinions and a deterioration of labour relations where social partnership gives way for the struggle over dwindling resources.
Recession pitches business and unions against each other. Having negotiated how the fruits of growth are shared, capital and labour are now engaged in a combat over who shoulders losses. High unemployment and deteriorating social services add to conflicts. Unions are pushed into defence by business circles and their political supporters who want to get rid of collective agreements and legal regulations that are seen as restrictive.
Supply chain sustainability cooperation is clearly affected by this lack of confidence.
Conflicts at home is not an excuse to forget joint obligations
The commercial workers’ trade unions engaged themselves for improving supply chain conditions during the time that I was in charge of UNI Commerce Global Union. We joined the advisory and stakeholder boards of initiatives such as Social Accountability International SAI, the Business Social Compliance Initiative BSCI and the Global Social Compliance Programme GSCP.
These decisions were not made without thorough considerations. Many of the large retailers that we came to work with were formidable opponents in their own employer roles. What made us sign up to these initiatives was the conviction that our own conflicts should not be played out at the expense of the already hard pressed and badly treated supply chain workers and their families.
This was a very mature and responsible stance by the large commerce trade unions around the world that were our members. Something of the same spirit would be needed also today. This would require also many buyer brands and retailers to take a more positive stance to involving workers and their unions in supply chain sustainability work.