Social Auditing: A New Tool for Sustainable Development?

Can social auditing be repurposed for greater good? That was the question posed during a breakout session of the Sedex Global Responsible Sourcing Conference in London last week. Muriel Johnson, AAG Project Manager at Sedex, asked a panel of leading business representatives if social auditing could be used to advance sustainable development within global enterprise, rather than as a simple mechanism to manage risk in the supply chain.

Q. What part can auditing and assessment play in sustainable development?

“Auditing is a great tool for businesses to connect their suppliers and their customers,” remarked Benjamin Gatland, Regional Manager at Partner Africa, emphasising theopportunities for value creation described by Sally Uren of Forum for the Future in the earlier plenary sessions. Sujata Dutta, Ethical Compliance Program Manager atPerrigo, felt that auditing had a more general role to play. “Businesses currently use banking indicators to assign risk to suppliers,” she said, explaining that these often lacked detailed insight. “I would like to see audits changing the way we consider what is high risk and what is low risk.”

Aisha Aswani, Ethical Trading Manager at The Co-operative Group, suggested that auditing needed to be considered in perspective. “Audits tell us what the problem is, but it’s what we do with the results that really matters, how we work with our suppliers and support them.”

Referencing the new UN Sustainable Development Goals expected in September,Fergus Morgan, Sustainability Manager at 2 Sisters Food Group, cautioned against becoming too reliant on government for direction: “There is a danger that we could try to directly translate the 169 targets of the draft SDGs into assessment criteria and overburden the system,” he said.

Q. How do we move forward and use audit to promote wider change?

Dutta implored delegates to “read the whole assessment report to identify and promote best practice. Don’t just flip straight to the non-compliance section.” Aswani concurred that there needed to be less of a knee-jerk reaction to performance. She advocated taking the time to “develop proper conversation” on non-compliance, “to listen and understand why issues are happening and provide suppliers with time and space that is required to address those issues.”

Morgan encouraged the use of leaderboards to leverage the competitive nature of business. “It is human nature to try and climb up ladders. Audit can feed into that. It can celebrate success and stimulate a drive for positive change.”

Q. How do we ensure worker voice feeds through in audits?

Aswani felt that there was still work to do to get the softer elements of worker voice into end reports. She stressed the need for more effective support mechanisms, such as help for employees in answering audit questions effectively.

Morgan recognised that it can often be a challenge to provide every worker with the opportunity to use their voice. “In a factory with 1000 workers, it can be very damaging to take everyone out,” he said. He explained how technology such as multilingual telephone lines, text services and mobile apps could provide workers with the opportunity use their voice free of time constraints and without harming productivity.

Q. What single change do you think would have the biggest impact on the audit system?

Collectively, the panel imagined a new role for audit companies. Gatland maintained that they should provide businesses with longer-term support to effect change. “Audit companies should consider their job done when every supplier is compliant, or on the road to compliance, rather than when the report is handed over,” he asserted.

Dutta and Aswani called for greater cooperation between auditors to standardise the system and avoid unnecessary duplication for suppliers. Aswani added, however, that there was also a need for greater consistency in how individual businesses approached assessment results. She reiterated her earlier suggestion that industry should adopt a policy of striving to help non-compliant suppliers, rather than simply cutting them off.

Asked for suggestions for what Sedex could do in its role as the Supplier Ethical Data Exchange, the panel observed that there was an opportunity for Sedex to amalgamate non-confidential data to identify key development priorities for different industry segments. The panel also expressed a desire for more help in spotting future non-compliance issues and more tools to identify issues such as human trafficking, which are currently hard to detect.

Johnson welcomed these suggestions, and explained that they will feed into Sedex’s new Blue Skies project, which brings together retailers, suppliers, auditors and brands to discuss how Sedex can go beyond traditional assessment activities and promote social auditing as a tool for wider developmental change.