SA 8000 - The First Decade: Implementation, Influence and Impact

Leipziger, Deborah
Greenleaf Publishing
Reviewed by or other comment: 

Williams, Peter

Deborah Leipziger (ed.)
SA 8000 - The First Decade: Implementation, Influence and Impact
Sheffield, UK: Greenleaf Publishing, 2009, ISBN: 978-0-906093-12-9, 192 pp.

The SA 8000 standard - one of the more successful attempts to inject robustness into corporate responsibility - encompasses a now-familiar set of core labour rights, based on ILO Conventions and management systems to put them into practice. Companies (both brands and suppliers) can be certified according to their compliance with the standard. This book is an attempt to recount the first ten (or twelve) years of SA 8000 and its parent organisation, Social Accountability International (SAI), and implicitly to celebrate its success. SAI's founders, Alice and John Tepper Marlin, introduce the book as 'a feast of stories that together say loud and clear that SA8000 workplace standard is improving the lives of workers. One million people work in fully compliant facilities (independently verified). Millions more in facilities that are seeking compliance…' (p. 3).

Part One, sub-titled 'Implementation', leads with accounts by six major companies which have implemented SA 8000: fashion brands Otto, Gucci, and GAP Inc, plus Chiquita (of banana fame), and two less obvious candidates, Tata Steel and TNT. These chapters are marked by enthusiasm and a felt need to show how SA 8000 fitted with each company's pre-existing ethos. For many companies, part of the appeal of SA 8000 is that the process is akin to implementing quality assurance (ISO 9001) and similar standards; it is not unfamiliar to managers. Also, and this is its strength, SA 8000 is auditable. As the redoubtable Dan Henkel (GAP Inc) puts it, 'Anyone can talk the talk. You must also show us you can walk the walk' (p. 63).

Chapter 7 is a less convincing eulogy of (and by) the industry-led Business Social Compliance Initiative, and what it terms a 'development-oriented approach towards SA8000', by Lorenz Berzao of the Foreign Trade Association of Belgium. BSCI nods towards SA 8000 - but mostly, it would seem, as a standardised code for its 90 member companies across Europe, and as a means of reducing the duplication of social auditing of suppliers.

Part One ends with a more thoughtful piece by Craig Moss of SAI (USA) on 'Key performance indicators (KPIs) for social compliance in the supply chain'. He reflects on the conflicting messages that suppliers receive from brands and wonders whether they will follow the buyer, stating 'If you want the order, you've got to come down on price' (p. 95), or the CSR manager, asking questions about wage levels. He argues for companies to be judged against KPIs that measure the degree of integration between compliance and sourcing departments, and annual targets for improving working conditions, backed up by appropriate performance-related incentives. These would indeed be positive moves for SAI and the SA 8000 standard!

Part Two, 'Influence', opens with an account of the MADE-BY 'sustainable fashion' label, a joint project by SAI and the Dutch development organisation Solidaridad. Consumers frequently complain that they lack information about companies' ethical performance. MADE-BY publishes the audit-rating of suppliers against labour rights and environmental criteria both for individual garments and across a retailer's range. A case study looks at a typical garment factory in China, where only 10 per cent of the workforce has a contract and only 20 per cent are covered by social insurance, basic pay is below the legal minimum wage, and hours are excessive (90 hours/week). Substantial progress was made towards eventual compliance with SA 8000, but only after major investments (of time and money) by Solidaridad.

Here the book lacks a critical analysis of the certification approach embodied by SAI. For certification is a very blunt instrument for achieving social change. Were it an education system, it would be all exams and no lessons! In practice, SAI-member companies have learned to complement certification with capacity-building measures; indeed much of the impact described in this book derived from parallel approaches to improving conditions, rather than from certification. Furthermore, while the threat of de-certification can motivate suppliers, it also encourages concealment, which in China is widespread and sophisticated, and conditions have been known to deteriorate again after the three-year certificate has been awarded.

Part Three, misleadingly entitled 'Impact', starts with a chapter describing the ISEAL Alliance of certification agencies to which SAI belongs, which regrettably overlooks the debate about the effectiveness of the certification approach. Chapter 14 discusses ISO 26000, a social-responsibility standard due to be launched by the International Standards Organisation in 2010. The final (fifteenth) chapter is an informative history of the spread of corporate social responsibility in Brazil, which owes much to the strength of Brazilian unions (itself a reflection of strong labour laws) and a well-developed domestic NGO sector, but has been taken up by a far-sighted corporate sector.

Chapter 13, 'Evaluating the impact of SA 8000 certification', is disappointingly not an evaluation of impact, but a discussion of impact indicators which could at some stage be used; it is based mostly on impact assessments of Fairtrade and on the impact assessment that the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) carried out in 2006.

The different ways in which SAI and its UK homologue, ETI, have chosen to celebrate their synchronous first decades are very telling. In this book SAI has published a paean of praise to its virtues. In contrast, ETI embraced both strengths and weaknesses, revealed in its impact study, to learn how to improve its effectiveness, and is now focused on changing how brands do business; promoting workers' union rights; ensuring benefits for informal workers; and experimenting with ways of raising wages without putting manufacturers out of business.

The book tends, as do many collections, to consist merely of a series of cameos; and it deserved more judicious editing. A critical overview, to create some kind of narrative and highlight the lessons learned, would have been fruitful. But the greatest flaw, on which readers, the authors, and SAI itself should reflect, is the absence of the voice of the supposed beneficiaries - the millions of poorly paid workers (mostly women) in global supply chains. Is it desirable or even possible to create a model for sustainable change for any social group in which they themselves are not active participants?