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Over The Horizon

By: Russell Jowell & Clay Hickson
May 15

During the closing years of the 20th century, the world spent a lot of time wondering what life would be like in the fast-approaching 21st century. Would we have flying cars? Would another planet be colonized? Would we finally have cures for many of the deadly diseases long considered incurable? While many these things have not yet come to pass, what is true is that our world has advanced in unimaginable ways since dawn of the new millennium. While the social compliance industry itself was still relatively young at that time, there were many who were wondering what the future would hold for the nascent industry and how it would shape the greater businesses that it served. In this article, we’re going to look at some of the trends shaping the global social compliance industry and what they mean for Africa going forward.

There has no doubt been an uptick in global interest in African sourcing recently. Over the last 5 years or so, price pressures in East Asia and security pressures in South Asia have prompted many apparel and textile companies to search for new, more favorable sourcing destinations, and for many, this search has led them to Africa. Fueling the African interests of many of these companies is the perception that the continent represents a proverbial “clean slate,” a chance to build a new global sourcing base using the compliance lessons learned from other major sourcing destinations, like challenges around building safety and working hours, as a guide for success in Africa. Obviously, social compliance organizations, like Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production (WRAP), have a major role to play in this effort as well. Recognizing this, we at WRAP have been proactive in taking a leadership role to help develop safe, lawful, and ethical manufacturing across all of Africa. Our social compliance awareness missions to Africa have taken us to every corner of the continent, from North to South and East to West, and we have formed constructive relationships with multiple stakeholder groups including the East, West and Southern African Trade and Investment Hubs supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and individual government groups. Our senior managers frequently visit the continent to attend trade shows and conferences, like Origin Africa, and share information about social compliance and how it can help African manufacturers build a more sustainable industry. We also regularly visit with individual factories throughout the continent to educate them on how to build socially compliant practices into their work and how this can make them more globally competitive. The recent 10-year renewal of the U.S. African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) trade preference program has no doubt encouraged many African production facilities and building a solid social compliance foundation in Africa now will help all African manufacturers become competitive as sourcing from the continent grows regardless of what future international trade agreements may come into effect.

As mentioned previously, the social compliance community is just that, a community. Since the industry’s beginnings some 20 years ago, this community has grown to include dozens of inspection, certification, and standard-setting bodies that all offer legitimate yet varying paths to the single goal of safer, more ethical supply chains. While the origins of these initiatives are as varied as the initiatives themselves, what’s also true is that they all are operating in a common arena. Furthermore, while some companies still utilize a single-provider approach to social compliance, whether it be their own in-house operation or with an outside group like WRAP, many more have come to use a “hybrid” approach utilizing several inspection methods and accepting numerous certifications. The obvious outcome here is that all of these varying initiatives will collaborate to create greater consistency and better results for all. Convergence in various forms has already impacted the social compliance industry and will only continue to do so going forward. We’ve already seen two notable manifestations of this in the Alliance and the Accord in Bangladesh, both groups which brought together hundreds of global apparel industry stakeholders to work for better building safety in one of the world’s top apparel supplying countries and whose government is also working on creating a successor to the two groups when their initial mandates expire next year. Two other notable examples are the Social and Labor Convergence Project, which is seeking to develop a “simple, unified and effective industry-wide assessment framework” to create a common audit tool for the social compliance industry, and the Association of Professional Social Compliance Auditors (APSCA), which launched last year as an effort to “enhance the professionalism and credibility of the individuals and organizations performing independent social compliance audits.” Collaboration within social compliance has already proven that it can advance us further than any group could do alone and this trend will only continue in the years to come.

The other area that will see unprecedented growth and change within social compliance is in technology. Objective information and data are the heartbeat of the social compliance world. Just as collaborating on audit data frameworks and auditor accountability processes will help move our industry forward, so to will developments that help those very auditors collect their necessary data in more efficient ways. Some technology experts say that traditional desktop, and laptop, computers may be all but extinct by 2020 thanks to the rapid development of tablets and other mobile devices. This has opened up the very exciting possibility of not only completely paperless audits, but also real-time audits where an on-site inspector can provide data, even in the form of live video, right from the factory floor. The other benefit provided by paperless audits is the ability to collect, and later analyze, quantities of audit data that would not otherwise have been possible. One of the most popular pages on WRAP’s website is an interactive world map that provides real-time data about currently certified factories, including their location, certification level, and expiration date. Several similar factory mapping projects are also in the works around the world. We at WRAP are also embarking on a major overhaul of our own internal database system that will allow us to analyze inspection data to better identify trends, and perhaps more importantly, better prepare for whatever the future of our field may throw our way.

The social compliance industry is one that has no doubt come of age. In the approximately 20 years of its existence, it has both clearly defined itself and carved out an essential role in the greater supply chain realm. Now, as the industry moves into the next phase of its life, it will do so in a world that demands it keep pace with the rapid rate of societal change that has become the new norm of our time.

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