Gaining the trust of suppliers, embracing collaboration and sharing data are just some of the challenges apparel businesses need to overcome if they are to improve human rights conditions in their supply chains.
Speaking at the Xplore Sustainability conference this week, organised by supply chain data platform Sedex, Lea Esterhuizen, founder and CEO of due diligence firm &Wider, explained to delegates how worker feedback technology is enabling apparel firms to better understand working conditions at sites in their supply chains.
“When we look carefully at human rights and working conditions in the supply chain, we see that human rights and working conditions are a seasonal phenomenon. All of us experience seasonal working conditions – some parts of the year are sometimes harder on us than others and this is particularly pronounced in certain sectors like apparel.”
This seasonal phenomenon, Esterhuizen explained, can be addressed through human rights due diligence, alongside regular auditing in order to fill in the “data gaps”.
“In practice, working conditions change several times a year, so in order to assess working conditions and human rights along the supply chain, you need data that reflects that seasonal change over the year. That’s where direct worker reporting comes in. It provides a near-to-live source of insight into the seasonal fluctuations across a particular year.”
While audits are conducted every 1-3 years to check on supplier management systems, direct reporting provides a feed and reflects the seasonal nature of those lived experiences of working conditions. This helps with assessing and tracking human rights impacts at the time, according to Esterhuizen.
&Wider is effectively a human rights data company. It generates human rights insights along the supply chain with primary data drawn directly from the rights holders themselves; most of them workers, smallholders, but also sometimes communities, using mobile technology. Monitoring is conducted at the macro-level across particular landscapes focused on particular centres.
&Wider has worked with apparel brand Boden for around four years who wanted to gain a greater understanding of what is happening at its supplier facilities throughout the year, as well as hearing directly from workers.
Esterhuizen says there are three main problems business are often trying to solve within their supply chains: driving improvements; identifying severe invisibilities in their supply chains; and measuring the nature of a problem in a particular geography.
“What you’ll notice in each of these problem areas is that there is a problem on insight, and what I mean is, there is a focus by clients on finding out what is really happening and how this is changing over time. This insight is actively used by suppliers to enhance their own businesses, to retain workers and to unlock productivity and loyalty from workers.”
Esterhuizen outlines the six main challenges when it comes to human rights due diligence and how Boden might overcome them:
1. You need willing suppliers. Don’t go behind the backs of suppliers because suppliers remain the driver of change in worker’s lives. That would be unwise. It is extremely important to tell a compelling story about the business case to suppliers and that is something you build with your client. Sometimes there are contractual conditions and sometimes you have to convince the supplier on the basis of the fact that indeed it has a direct impact on worker retention, productivity, and competitiveness in the market. Show to your clients the businesses are protected from punitive measure while they listen and make critical improvements. That is essential. Let learning take place. Forget the pass and fail stuff. Remember no business is perfect.
2. You need to get comfortable with the uncomfortable. We use a traffic light system on our dashboard, and from the outset you need to embrace your ‘reds’. Every dashboard has reds, every working situation has its challenges. You need to prepare your suppliers for those reds. The reds mean that workers trust the system and you with that feedback and trust you to act on that feedback. It is a good sign to have reds on that dashboard.
3. A paradigm shift. This dynamic of receiving data requires a paradigm shift away from risk towards improvement. If we can make that shift and look at data as a means of identifying needs and tracking improvements, it will unlock the willingness among suppliers and will be using the data more impactfully for workers.
4. Collaboration. Sometimes you won’t have leverage in your supply chain. There will be situations where monitoring results land and you’re a very small buyer in this workplace. What happens? This is the moment when you need to collaborate. You are not the only buyer here and if you collaborate you can resolve the challenge together. Even if you have leverage, you may have it in one site but not another. Frequently, brands are scared to collaborate because they think they are airing dirty laundry in public. But you all want to resolve the issue and collaborating is much more effective. Recognise the sooner you start collaborating on human rights due diligence the better.
5. Landscape assessments. Unfortunately, in many geographies, the human rights picture is not a local picture that is generated by a particular business. There are systemic human rights challenges. That is a huge risk for those sourcing from high-risk sourcing geographies. Landscape assessments unlocks the ability for clients to benchmark their own supplier base against the bigger picture. Essentially this is a game where collaboration is key and where bigger picture insight is key.
6. Data sharing. What if your brand acknowledges it has serious invisibility problems in the supply chain with serious data gaps but you haven’t got the data to fill it. What happens then? Data sharing and cost sharing is a must in human rights due diligence. It can be very expensive and complex if you do it alone and can be much more affordable and management if you do it together.
Martin Seale, responsible sourcing and compliance manager at Boden, said: “Collaboration is a win-win from a data and cost sharing point of view. But really importantly, it helps when it comes to addressing the problem of that data identifiers.”
Esterhuizen also points to the importance of gaining trust from workers.
“We work with five principles of trust, and essentially it starts with information. The worker has to hear the why from you on how they are protected. You provide that info in full up front. Secondly you recognise the risk workers are taking and you provide an incentive. So a worker might get a calling credit on their phone.
“Third, don’t talk about
anonymity, demonstrate it. We don’t engage with all the workers at once.
Fourth, don’t patronise them, share the outcomes and learnings because they
need to be part of the solution. Finally, use regular touchpoints, you need to
stay listening and stay engaged. If they see what they are learning from the
insight and action to make those improvements your response rates improve.”
By Just Style