Trends in Certification: Social Audits – behind the scenes of a supply chain

09.01.2020

Consumers are often astonished when they learn how long and complex the supply chains for their favourite food or clothes are. For those working in the industry, it might not be a surprise, but it can be quite a puzzle nonetheless: When it is already difficult to track your product through the various stages of its supply chain, how can you know about the working conditions and ensure that the people who process it are treated fairly?

One way to find out more about your supply chain and how your suppliers fare when it comes to sustainability and good working conditions are Social Audits. These audits use a range of social indicators to assess performance and impact of the company in this regard.

One of our auditors, Deepak Sharma, describes how this looks in practice:

Deepak Sharma checking working conditions in a textile factory

"In a typical Social Audit I first have a short introductory meeting with the audit responsible for the company. I explain what will happen during the audit and what I need to see and check. What exactly I look into depends on the type of audit the company has chosen.

Social Audits in most cases involve a larger number of individual and group interviews with workers, than a Fairtrade audit. And in a Social Audit I also check bonus payments, legal requirements like the existence of welfare officers, and if safety inspections were carried out by competent experts. I might also look at actors in a supply chain not covered by a Fairtrade audit, like sub contractors or home workers, and for example check the conditions of dormitories for workers.

In some audits I focus on checking if the company's management systems are suited to ensure that the company's social compliance is sustainable and continues to improve. In these cases, I look for example into the company's risk assessment, internal audits, or stakeholder engagement.

To kick off and audit, I normally start by looking into a range of documents to establish the processes and practices of the company. Then, it's on to the actual working facilities to check on the working conditions and how these reflect the policies and processes. I walk through the factory, ideally with a worker representative explaining their work processes, I observe working conditions and physical evidence of health and safety compliance like for example fire extinguishers and fire exits. And I spend a major part of the audit talking to workers. I interview a number of them in private, to assure confidentiality. On top of this, I also meet with members of official workers' representation bodies.

In doing so, I can obtain and cross-check information from all the different sources (documentary, observational and gathered from group and individual interviews) The audit finishes with a closing meeting where I explain my findings, including good practices and areas of improvement."

 

We have found Social Audits to be very useful for companies that have supply chains which are not yet ready for Fairtrade certification, but want to get there eventually via a step-up approach. Conducting Social Audits provides them with an overview on the practices at each point in the supply chain and allows them to proactively identify hot spots and work on remedying weaknesses and risks.

Social Audits also help companies shine a light on "blind spots" in their supply chains, be this a minor ingredient or a smaller actor or origin. For example, the processing of additives or less prominent ingredients might pose a heightened health and safety risk for workers in a processing facility, which might be overlooked if the focus of attention is on the processing of the main ingredients.

It is probably for these reasons that we are observing a growing number of corporates, brands and retailers now using Social Audits to step up their ethical business practices. At the same time, key performance indicators related to sustainability are becoming more mainstream and less compartmentalised into separate CSR reports. This means that social auditors will in the future need to demonstrate that they can deliver more of this data at a higher quality to create and protect the value demanded. At FLOCERT, we are prepared to meet these demands, using the expert knowledge and infrastructure we have built up as global certifier for Fairtrade, and continuously innovating for example with new technological platforms.

 

Bronwyn Page-Shipp is FLOCERT’s Regional Manager for Africa and the Middle East. Originally started her career as a criminal defense attorney.