Consumer pressure key to addressing dire working conditions in apparel supply chain

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The plethora of different audit systems and standards for assessing labor practices in factories in the apparel supply chain continues to produce disappointing improvements in working conditions. An approach being developed would change this by using data from different audit methods to create simple information that consumers could easily understand. In doing so, it would mobilize the voice of the consumer in the effort to improve working practices.

Despite decades of effort and numerous initiatives to improve labor practices in apparel supply chains, labor rights violations continue to be rampant in low-cost countries. Growing pressure from lobby groups, financial analysts, and the media to deal with such incidents has led Western brands, NGOs, and third-party certification bodies to develop a plethora of diverse audit programs that vary in terms of quality. objectives, scope and commitment.

However, the potpourri of assessments (certifications, third-party audits, brand audits and self-assessment audits) remains ineffective and, in fact, conditions in many factories appear to be worsening since the start of the pandemic. Audits and assessments are difficult for factory owners to manage and have contributed to the high levels of audit fatigue seen across the industry. In our interviews with factory owners, we found that Tier 1 facilities devote considerable resources and staff to ensuring they pass the various audits they undergo throughout the year. But somehow, these audits do not reduce many of the fundamental human rights violations in the extensive clothing supply networks.

The complexity of social compliance assessments should be reduced. To that end, our multidisciplinary research team at North Carolina State University is developing a simplified system – which we call the Ethical Apparel Index (EAI) – to demystify the vast amount of audit data collected and improve transparency in the apparel industry. clothes. The essential framework for this index has been developed and we are preparing to conduct a pilot test next year through partnership with a variety of brands, retailers and factory owners around the world.

Today, the results of apparel factory audits are invisible to consumers, but we know that many consumer segments, especially young consumers, are keen to support producers who respect human rights in the production of clothes. This means that brands that enforce respect for human rights in factories throughout their supply chains are not rewarded in the marketplace. To address this issue, we have developed a highly structured coding process that synthesizes the multitude of audit results into a simplified message that can then be easily communicated to consumers.


Our goal is to enable a consumer who is considering purchasing a garment to scan a QR code which would take them to a simple and easy to understand summary of the ethical production performance of the factory that made the garment. This summary would let consumers know that they can be sure that the brand is doing its best to improve the factory conditions of its suppliers. We believe that this type of “market pull” mechanism will be much more effective than regulatory compliance “incentive” mechanisms in driving change in apparel supply chains. In doing so, we seek to create an independent source of truth based on the best available information that already exists; this would simplify the data produced by a plethora of methods for valuing factories that manufacture garments sold in retail channels.

Our research team is guided by an advisory board that includes stakeholders from every link in the apparel supply chain, including WRAP, one of the largest third-party apparel factory certification programs in the world; the American Apparel and Footwear Association; and Shahi, one of the largest garment factory groups in India. The Templeton World Charity Foundation is funding the effort.

Simplify a complex system of audits

To improve transparency for consumers, we used two rules of thumb that guided our goal of connecting consumers to the complex world of factory social compliance.

1. Agree that there is no perfect standard.

There is no single standard that meets the unique needs of brand auditing. Audits are flawed by design – they are infrequent snapshots that can be manipulated by vendors and rely on the judgment of auditors. However, creating a simplified score can provide proof that a company is making a genuine effort and following an established set of standards that most people agree are good enough.

2. Since supply chains are complex, let’s start with Tier 1 suppliers.

We should start by making sure that brands are adopting the right behaviors within their Tier 1 suppliers, i.e. the suppliers they have direct influence over. In clothing, this is usually the “cut and sewn” supplier who assembles the garment from various components. Later, lower levels of suppliers (spinners, dyeers and cotton farms) can be included.

We then tackled three big questions: 1) What content should be included? 2) How could this content be effectively communicated to consumers? 3) How to ensure the credibility of EAI data?

In deciding what content to include, we recognized early in our work that to communicate effectively with apparel consumers, the confusing array of different auditing standards must be simplified. Our aim is not to replace the auditing standards used, but rather to take advantage of the fact that there is significant overlap between the standards to produce a simplified summary of factories’ ethical production performance which can then be easily communicated. to consumers.

Accordingly, we have developed a taxonomy based on an analysis of 10 sets of labor standards developed by organizations such as the United Nations International Labor Council, governments and NGOs and approximately 30 different auditing systems used in third-party certification programs. We then synthesized it into eight common themes regarding essential working conditions in factories: non-discrimination, no harassment and abuse, no forced labor, no child labor, freedom of association, health and safety, humane working hours, and fair compensation (see the exhibition “Reducing the Eight Common Themes of Standards and Audits to Three Simple Questions”).

Based on our interviews with supply chain actors, we narrowed down the eight categories to three key questions. The answers to these questions can provide consumers with enough information to understand working conditions inside a garment factory without overwhelming them:

  1. Are workers treated fairly in the workplace?
  2. Are workers working in a safe environment?
  3. Are workers paid fairly?

A Call to action for brands

The EAI will only be as good as the audit data on which it is built, and much work remains to be done to improve the system of audits and assessments that form the basis of the EAI. Our research suggests that brands should consider using a recognized independent third party such as WRAP or SA8000 to conduct audits and certify factories rather than relying on their own internal auditors. Third parties are moving towards more standardized audit frameworks that can provide objective audit data that serves as input to EAI.

Using unbiased third parties would not only allow for a single audit of a factory across multiple brands, but would also send a message to consumers that “the fox does not guard the chicken coop” – that is, it would be more credible than the results produced by the brands’ own auditors. To improve our supplier audit database and further strengthen EAI, we are working with partner companies to augment EAI with crowd-sourced data such as texts and employee phone survey responses. factory.

Admittedly, our approach puts thousands of players at risk: brands, factories and distributors. What happens if a factory audit reveals a problem that is then exposed to consumers? But whether they like it or not, transparency is quickly becoming an expectation in retail markets. Maybe it’s time for brands to admit to consumers that their supply chain has issues, but they’re doing their best to make factories a safe and fair place for workers.

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