Reflections on SEDEX 2018: Feeding pigs without measuring them, or measuring them before we feed them?

We have suffered and complained, then complained some more, about a pre-occupation with compliance in responsible supply chains. I have personally witnessed hours of such complaining in the halls of responsible sourcing and ethical trade conferences over the past three years.

So it was refreshing to observe a change in tone and seriousness last week during the annual SEDEX conference, to which &Wider (as a provider of direct worker reporting) was invited as speaker and nominated award winner.

So what was the change? This time we witnessed action.

Trevor Waldock (Emerging Leaders) spoke of awakening and recognising the “amazing potential” of the individual worker as a leader: someone with “the ability to create a story that affects the thoughts, the feelings, the actions of other people”.

We value what we measure

Then the imposing figure of Marco Baren spoke of embarking on the new ‘tell-me-all-without-risking-punishment’ approach Philips has begun to trial across a group of 250 suppliers.

But few, painfully few people who were invited to present ideas and share experiences, spoke about the ‘A word’ (auditing). Yet in reality most if not all those attending were in some way involved (commissioning, completing, conducting, collaborating with those who do…) in auditing, not least of which SEDEX itself as as an audit-sharing platform.

So what does this audit-free new language mean for workers?

I believe it means a lot. It means that increasingly those who set the agenda and influence mainstream behaviour when it comes to responsible sourcing and responsible supply, are perceiving of compliance as a starting point, and measurable and continuous improvement in workers’ lives as the destination.

Our restlessness as a sector…should not be mistaken as a desire to rid our sector of auditing…

This is welcome news for those of us who believe that the future of responsible supply chains lies in better celebrating, better incentivising and yes, in better measuring, improvement in workers’ lives.

For after all, we value what we measure, do we not? Hence the need and the movement to work out how best to measure material improvement in workers’ lives. We at &Wider say that mobiles, rigorous survey design and carefully nurtured trust and response rates amongst workers, is rather important here.

But auditing and auditors are not synonymous with compliance. Our restlessness as a sector to aim well beyond the bare minimum, to clear and concrete change, should not be mistaken as a desire to rid our sector of auditing or auditors.

Even the vocal Mr Baren (Philips) conceded that we still need auditors. But what we wish these professionals to focus on and how we propose they will assist in monitoring and indeed, enabling continuous material improvement in workers’ lives, is the million dollar question. Perhaps this constitutes a worthy focus for next year’s SEDEX conference?

How we propose they assist in monitoring and enabling continuous improvement is the million dollar question

But what has all this got to do with weighing or feeding pigs?

Well, put it this way: a charming lawyer by the name of Avedis Seferian (WRAP) who participated in a panel on defining ‘beyond compliance’ asserted: “one does not fatten a pig by weighing it”. However, as Jonathan Ivelaw-Chapman (CEO, SEDEX) commented during his closing: one is wise to weigh the pig first before feeding it, for feeding a pig without weighing it is a dangerous omission.

Whether the traditional approach to auditing constitutes effective measurement or weighing here, or whether such requires additional verification or data – this is where direct and anonymous worker reporting has a role to play – was a subject which was touched on, but not emphasised quite as much as pigs and the strong impatient cry for progress!

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