Rethinking due diligence practices in the apparel supply chain
In the run-up to the Third Global Forum on Responsible Business Conduct in June, today’s post is by Jennifer Schappert of the OECD’s Responsible Business Conduct Unit (@J_Schappert).
Two years ago today, the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka collapsed, killing over 1,100 people and injuring another 2,500. The dead and injured were garment workers, ordered to go back to work even though shops and a bank in the same building had closed immediately the day before when cracks appeared. The garment factories were indirectly supplying international retailers, highlighting the debate on whether multinational enterprises (MNEs) can make the apparel supply chain safe and healthy. Ensuing recommendations to MNEs have often focused on MNEs strengthening existing compliance mechanisms with individual suppliers. However, to transform the sector, we need to question whether the current approach to supply chain due diligence is the right one to begin with.
In the absence of strong regulatory frameworks in many producing countries, the traditional approach to compliance is for enterprises themselves to take on the role of monitoring and assessing each supplier against international standards, developing corrective action plans, and then using their leverage (for example through the incentive of future contracts) to influence suppliers to mitigate risks. It sounds fine in theory, but in practice the system breaks down.
The OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises advocate an approach where the nature and the extent of due diligence correspond to risk. However, the short-term nature of contracts between MNEs and their suppliers and the sheer size and complexity of apparel supply chains means that MNEs often struggle to know where to prioritise risk assessment and mitigation. Within this context an enterprise’s compliance system becomes reduced to ongoing assessments of (almost) all suppliers across all risk areas. This leaves few resources for tailoring risk assessments, identifying root causes of risks, and effectively managing risks when adverse impacts are identified.
Effective monitoring of individual suppliers is further complicated by the well-documented shortcomings of social audits, such as factory visits announced well in advance; fraud; inconsistent quality across audits and auditors; lack of alignment with international standards; audit duplication and resulting fatigue; and the limited scope of social audits which seek to identify adverse impacts but rarely root causes. Efforts to improve the system, for example through long-term contracts and close collaboration with suppliers have led to better results in certain cases and should be encouraged. However, this alone will not transform the sector because improvements are isolated to a few strategic suppliers and may fail to adequately address risks which cannot be tackled at the individual supplier level.
A multi-stakeholder project underway at the OECD is questioning current due diligence practices in the apparel supply chain on matters covered by the OECD Guidelines (human rights, employment and industrial relations, environment and bribery) and, among other questions, asking whether trade unions and other representative worker organisations could play a role in helping MNEs take a risk-based approach to due diligence.
Historically, unions and other worker organisations have helped government regulators direct inspections towards high-risk workplaces. For example, in the United States, trade unions helped regulators direct occupational safety and health inspections towards high-risk workplaces by requesting inspections as risks arose. This enabled limited government resources to appropriately target the most risky workplaces. By contributing to inspections, trade unions also ensured that inspections targeted the most salient risks at each individual workplace.
Within the apparel supply chain, workers’ representatives could act as an on-the-ground monitoring mechanism to trigger third-party inspections by multi-stakeholder initiatives. Such a process would potentially reduce the duplication of broad social audits and facilitate the targeting of technical assessments to specific risks. By contributing to the assessments, workers would likewise help to improve the quality and conformity of assessments and provide important context in identifying root causes of adverse impacts and corresponding solutions. Furthermore, unions and worker organisations have a role to play in promoting the long-term sustainability of solutions by increasing worker awareness of their rights, offering assistance in the actual exercise of individual rights, and protecting the rights of individual workers through collective bargaining.
The focus of an enterprise’s due diligence would then shift from the seemingly impossible task of monitoring suppliers for all risks to focusing on targeted assessments and risk remediation. The primary role of the MNE would be: to actively promote freedom of association amongst suppliers; create or participate in a system by which workers can request inspections; support timely and targeted technical assessments at the site level when requested or when operating in high-risk contexts (e.g. building integrity); and contribute to the mitigation of risks by addressing root causes (where feasible) in collaboration with suppliers, trade unions, and other buyers.
Freedom of association therefore becomes the enabler of risk-based due diligence across an entire supply chain. In countries where legal or political constraints prohibit or limit this fundamental right, the sector should use its leverage broadly, in collaboration with trade unions, government and international organisations, to influence government to reform the regulatory framework and its implementation in producing countries.
This broader approach to due diligence applies to other salient risks in the sector, low wages for example, that cannot be effectively addressed at the individual supplier level. The Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety are demonstrating how a paradigm shift is feasible.
To date, supply chain due diligence in the apparel sector has predominantly focused on direct suppliers. However, according to the OECD Guidelines, it should be applied across the full length of the supply chain. Effective due diligence of risks linked to upstream production should build on the lessons of the last 20 years: an individual and bilateral approach to due diligence will not transform the sector. Due diligence is the responsibility of all enterprises in the sector. It should therefore be carried out by enterprises operating at each segment of the supply chain and be mutually reinforcing.
Based on the findings of the multi-stakeholder project, the OECD will develop a practical guidance to support the development of a common understanding of risk-based due diligence in the apparel and footwear sector supply chain. We welcome you to join us on 18-19 June 2015 as we carry this debate forward at the Global Forum on Responsible Business Conduct.
Remembering Rana Plaza Institute for Human Rights and Business
Corporate leaders: Your supply chain is your responsibility Roel Nieuwenkamp (@nieuwenkamp_csr) Chair of the OECD Working Party on Responsible Business Conduct, in the OECD Observer