Question: If social compliance audits don’t work, why do brands keep finding compliance issues and what else should they do?
Answer #1: It really depends on what is meant by compliance issues. In my experience, 99% of the time the “compliance issue” is something unique to the audit program, it’s something fairly minor and easy to fix. But if we are talking about egregious compliance issues still being found, like forced labor, then it’s because there are bad apples out there who are intentionally trying to flout the law, or do not hold the same values as their brand partners. This is why it’s important as a brand to get to know the supplier before starting business with them. Not enough time is spent doing this. Perhaps if the brand had more trust in the suppliers because they knew them well enough then there is less of a need for audits. I think what feeds the audit system is that brands are unable to establish meaningful relationships with their suppliers because of the number of suppliers they are doing business with.
Second, I don’t think I have ever been in an audit where some issue isn’t found. The audit mentality is a “gotcha” system. The auditor must find something. It’s their job. In my opinion the auditor must find something on every audit, otherwise people may wonder if the auditor was doing their job or there was bribery.
Another challenge is many audit programs are very prescriptive and every brand has their own prescription. For example, how much space should go between production lines, where should fire extinguishers be placed, how much overtime is allowed, environmental impact targets, etc. This then makes it hard for manufacturers to make everyone happy. If we tried, we would spend all of our time preparing for audits.
We’d rather set our own stringent internal standards benchmarked to international best practices, and follow these. In the end these duplicated efforts by brands don’t offer incentives for manufacturers to take ownership of their own impacts. What incentive do manufacturers have to push the needle when a brand may disagree with our approach if it doesn’t meet certain prescriptions in their audit program. If any issues are found, it’s easier to create a “quick fix”, show the evidence, pass the audit, and go back to how we were doing things. Plus, many times auditors have different interpretation of the audit criteria under the same program. A practice that was fine one year is then a problem the next. The program didn’t change, just the auditor. There are many examples of this happening.
Answer #2: let me give an insight from Bangladesh a country with a lot scandals of labor rights violation (credit to our dysfunctional union system, but that’s another story). Compliance here has always been a ‘posh’ kinda job. You are all suited up, take a tour around the floor, interview random workers with great showmanship, dive into old salary sheets like an FBI investigator and then write a disastrous report while eating fresh fruits inside the best decorated room. It’s been designed this way where auditors are applauded based on number of findings, not status of improvement of said factory!
The compliance process is messed up, it’s all publicity and little impact. Lots of interrogation, zero field work. Giving advice or finding faults from outside is easy. Being a part of the process and helping to find solutions is needed, but never done. If we really want a change, we need to involve brands in their supply chain. Perhaps, by paying for their raw materials. That changes the entire narrative; because then the brand becomes invested in shipping the goods to get a return on their investment, as well as maintain compliance since their name is at stake. However, when manufacturers finance all the risk, brands can simply back out at their sweet will.