From Supplier Compliance to Open Collaboration in the Fight for Better Human Rights

By Laura Quinn for Tea & Water

From consumers and potential employees to international governments, the UN Development Programme and World Economic Forum, attention is turning towards the importance of fair, respectful treatment in the supply chain. And yet, despite the flurry of external interest, the majority of businesses have struggled to improve human rights effectively with suppliers and partners and to ensure the rights of workers throughout the many layers of their value chains.

Great progress has been made in some areas and industries; the apparel industry coming together to sign the Bangladesh Accord is a powerful example. And yet, in many companies, ensuring human rights within the supply chain remains the responsibility of one or two teams, enforced through compliance standards and audits that aren’t always locally relevant, practical to implement, or transparently adhered to. Part of the struggle is that many of those standards are developed without adequate inputs from suppliers and workers and, as a result, create artificial solutions or drive inefficiencies that guzzle time and money without providing tangible value in return. In the worst cases, the compliance process creates an ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality between corporate teams and supplier leadership that makes it difficult to address the biggest human rights issues at the root of the problem.

So the question many businesses are forced to ask themselves is how to enforce human rights compliance across an increasingly complex global network if the current system isn’t working. A great first step would be to stop enforcing, and start engaging. In other words, a little less stick and a little more carrot.

By disrupting the entrenched mentality of the ‘enforcer’ and ‘enforced’ – and actively engaging employees and suppliers in the process of human rights and equal treatment for all – companies can place greater agency into the hands of its people and its supply chain. Whether it’s driving individual responsibility and accountability across local teams through smart communications, or hosting workshops with supplier management teams and their workers, the goal of creating work cultures that prioritize human rights as standard requires collaboration, shared values and lots of listening if it is to work effectively for everyone.

When Gap first introduced its P.A.C.E. program, a women’s empowerment training program for female garment workers, instead of mandating the program from the outside it hosted round-tables with NGOs and the management of its largest manufacturer in India, Shahi Exports. Shahi became an active participant in the program’s development and, because it was developed collaboratively, proactively began to implement it across all its production units, having trained over 25,000 people to date. The company has also been able to prove tangible return-on-investment of the program, giving Gap a business case to take to other manufacturers. This collaboration was the result of a retailer team that sought to communicate shared values and drive conversations, instead of only mandating compliance requirements. The outcome has not only supported workers’ rights on the factory floor and benefited tens of thousands of low-skilled workers but it has built a culture of respect between both companies that has positively impacted every aspect of the relationship.

Such collaborations aren’t easy. They require open and honest dialogue, strong communications, and the will of many to succeed. But human rights is an issue that’s so fundamental, and so necessary for a fair and equitable future, that it’s imperative we bring these elements together effectively. Through powerful internal communications and equitable engagement with suppliers, collaborative solutions can be found that can drive better human rights and benefit both business and society alike.

Laura Quinn consults on behalf of Tea & Water, a multi-local agency that combines insight, strategy and communications to help companies motivate real behavior change around their sustainability agendas, throughout the supply chain.

Image credit: Pixabay / Ranjatm

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