The Next Generation of Social Responsibility Leaders

Commentary, 10 February 2012

By Auret van Heerden, CEO, Fair Labor Association

A proverbial “light bulb” has gone off in the minds of consumers and corporate executives alike: no brand is immune to supply chain issues.

"Apple’s decision to join FLA sets a new standard for the technology industry, and reinforces that supply chain issues and protecting workers’ rights are not just the responsibility of apparel and footwear brands. It’s time for another generation of brands to join the fold."

In the late '90s, when consumers first started to become aware of workers’ rights violations in factories around the world, apparel and footwear brands became the target.

The Fair Labor Association was formed, in part, in response to that sentiment, and for more than a decade its affiliates – civil society organisations, universities and socially responsible companies – have joined forces to protect workers and resolve labour issues in supply chains.

Focusing on one sector is not enough. We need to look at the bigger picture.

A new wave of corporate social responsibility?

Workers in all industries – including agriculture, technology, furniture, etc. – are still at risk. Today, after years of intense focus on the apparel and footwear industries, people are beginning to realize that urgent action is needed in other sectors, too.

A proverbial “light bulb” has gone off in the minds of consumers and corporate executives alike: no brand is immune to supply chain issues, and the abuse of workers will not be tolerated in any industry.

Last month Apple became the first technology company to join FLA as a Participating Company, triggering what we can only hope will be a new wave of corporate social responsibility; a wave which knows no boundaries and cascades over geographic borders and product lines.

Apple’s decision to join FLA sets a new standard for the technology industry, and reinforces that supply chain issues and protecting workers’ rights are not just the responsibility of apparel and footwear brands. It’s time for another generation of brands to join the fold.

Other industries also demonstrating leadership

Leaders in other industries, such as agriculture, have already made the commitment. Syngenta set the precedent by joining the FLA in 2004, and has worked diligently since then to eliminate child labor from its seed farms. Earlier this year, Nestlé announced its intention to join FLA and immediately asked us to trace and monitor the supply chain of cocoa in Côte d’Ivoire.

Responding to disclosures of code violations

Like all FLA Participating Companies, Apple has committed to FLA’s Principles of Fair Labour and Responsible Sourcing. One of these obligations is public disclosure, meaning that reports of all FLA independent assessments are published online.

Apple has already responded to this by proactively releasing more detail about its suppliers and its internal monitoring of them. As consumers continue to demand more transparency, brands will have no choice but to be open and honest about where and how their products are made. Eventually, companies’ disclosure will have to go beyond the final manufacturing facilities to include raw materials and processing. The issue and focus will no longer be on whether a factory is compliant, but rather on creating sustainable supply chains that respect the environment and the people involved.

In this respect, the indignant reaction of some commentators to Apple’s disclosure of serious code violations at supplier facilities is unfortunate. This can surely not have come as a surprise, and the condemnation of Apple could send the wrong signal to other companies debating the merits of greater disclosure. We need to encourage this trend because, if we do not know what the issues are, we cannot work together to address them.

Companies with the systems in place to proactively identify and remediate labor issues are able to protect workers throughout their supply chains and avoid costly missteps. In the process, they demonstrate to customers that they are committed to improvement and are willing and able to address problems when they arise.

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