Part Two: What is a corporation to do if it is looking to partner with a real social responsibility program?

A sign inside Wendy’s corporate headquarters in Columbus, Ohio.  While Wendy’s continues to cling to catchy slogans and a hollow code of conduct, an ever growing number of its customers are demanding that those words be made a reality in its tomato supply chain.

We concluded the first installment of this two-part series, entitled “The Enforcement Imperative at the Heart of Worker-driven Social Responsibility,” with this summary:

To be effective, any social accountability program must employ: 1) worker education about their rights and remedies, 2) a confidential, timely, retaliation-free complaint resolution mechanism, and 3) regular and thorough audits.  And all of those mechanisms must be backed by the “power of the purchasing order.” If any of those is missing, real change will not happen.

In other words, if someone is trying to sell you a car without an engine, a drive shaft, and four wheels, it’s not a car, no matter what they say.  The same holds for social responsibility.  If someone is trying to sell you a program designed to protect workers’ rights and it doesn’t have worker education, an effective and efficient complaint system, deep audits, and — most of all — economic leverage to compel compliance with the standards it claims to uphold, it’s not a real human rights program.  

And that would be sufficient as an answer to the question posed in the title line above if there were an adequate supply of social responsibility programs in the world that fit that description.  The problem is, there isn’t.  

In fact, the world of social responsibility is thick with programs designed, intentionally or otherwise, to fail at their declared objective: to protect workers’ human rights in the supply chain.  Bereft of either worker participation or meaningful enforcement power, or both, these programs sell the appearance of social responsibility — mostly through some sort of certification process based on little more than occasional audits — without the means to make it real.

And, sadly, far too many companies are happy to embrace that fiction.  Companies like Wendy’s, Publix, and Kroger prefer “self-policing” their supply chains (whatever that might actually mean in practice), or hiding behind third-party audits, rather than taking real measures to identify and eliminate human rights abuses in their supply chains.  The results of that approach are all too predictable.

This post is not written, however, with those companies in mind, companies that continue to yearn for 20th-century, Las Vegas-style social responsibility — what happens in the supply chain stays in the supply chain — even when their 21st-century customers are demanding transparency and verifiable protections for fundamental human rights.


Instead, this post is for those companies that are sincerely searching for answers to their supply chain problems but are still lost in the world of smoke and mirrors that almost entirely comprises the field of social responsibility today.  And, to their credit, there are a good deal of companies in this category.  

So what is a corporation looking for real social responsibility to do?

First, embrace enforcement…

While we here at the CIW have done our fair share of thinking over the years about how large food corporations should best protect the rights of workers who pick the fruits and vegetables they sell to consumers, we have not been alone in that endeavor.  In fact, over the course of the past decade, a very different process examining the very same question was taking place in a parallel universe far from Immokalee.  Interestingly enough, that process reached the very same conclusion about the primacy of enforcement in real social responsibility, and in doing so enshrined enforcement as one of its “guiding principles” for corporations seeking to fulfill their duty to protect human rights in their supply chains.  

In 2005, just as the CIW was establishing the fundamental principles of Fair Food in the seminal Taco Bell agreement, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan appointed Harvard Professor John Ruggie as the UN Special Representative for Business and Human Rights.  His job was to develop a global standard for the protection of human rights in corporate supply chains.  In 2008, as the vision of Fair Food continued to take shape and win more corporate partners here in the US, Ruggie presented the first product of his efforts, the “Protect, Respect, Remedy” framework, to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva for review.  After three more years, in 2011, just as the CIW was launching the Fair Food Program in the Florida tomato industry, the UN endorsed the Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights, the first corporate human rights responsibility initiative to be endorsed by the United Nations.


The UN Guiding Principles are founded on Professor Ruggie’s three pillars of “Protect, Respect, and Remedy.”  Within this framework, it is the responsibility of corporations to respect fundamental human rights within the broad sphere of their operations, including their supply chains, and to ensure that those who suffer abuses within their supply chains have access to effective remedy when their rights are violated.  The UN defines remedy as “both the processes of providing remedy for an adverse human rights impact and the substantive outcomes that can counteract, or make good, the impact.”

Like the Fair Food Program, the UN Guiding Principles place a definitive emphasis on enforcement, and on the mechanisms necessary to make enforcement real.  It is, therefore, hardly surprising that the United Nations has lifted up the Fair Food Program as one of the very few examples of effective remedy in the world today for human rights violations in corporate supply chains, twice inviting the CIW to speak about the FFP and its mechanisms, most recently at last year’s annual Forum on Business and Human Rights in Geneva.  

The UN Principles set the high bar for social responsibility at the global level.  Adopting those principles and making an explicit commitment to the enforcement-focused approach they endorse across its supply chain is the first thing any corporation looking for real social responsibility should do.

Don’t let doing something be the enemy of doing the right thing…

Having embraced enforcement as a guiding principle, the question for well-meaning corporations then becomes: How to convert the principle of enforcement into practice?  As it turns out, that is not an easy question to answer.

There is much to be done in cleaning up generations of unchecked farm labor exploitation in the produce industry, both here in the United States and abroad.  It is a daunting task, to say the least, for global corporations with wide and diverse supply chains involving hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of workers.  To make matters worse, the universe of social responsibility programs with strong enforcement mechanisms and proven track records like the Fair Food Program is distressingly small.  Given the enormity of the task and the scarcity of effective tools, the response of many companies has been to ask what might be called the existential question of social responsibility: Isn’t something better than nothing?

It is an existential question not only because it tends to divide like-minded people into hard to resolve philosophical camps, but also because so many lives in fact depend on it.  On the one hand, you have the ever-present threat of gross human rights violations, from modern-day slavery to factory fires, affecting untold numbers of workers around the globe.  Beyond posing an obvious and urgent moral imperative to address the high cost in human lives and misery they exact, those violations hang like a sword of Damocles over modern corporate supply chains, their potential discovery carrying incalculable reputational risk for the company’s brand.  Combine that reality with ever-growing consumer demand for ethically-sourced goods, and many, if not most, supply chain managers are willing to partner with any and all social responsibility programs out there, without regard to whether any given program can actually deliver on the promises it makes.  When a customer demands to know if a product was produced in fair labor conditions, or the latest slavery exposé hits the newsstand, an answer, any answer, seems better than none.  


In other words, when it comes to social responsibility, something is better than nothing, or so the thinking goes.  

On the other hand, ineffective social responsibility programs fail to protect both the workers whose lives are at risk and the interests of the corporations that partner with them.  They fail to protect the workers because their mechanisms are inadequate to detect or eliminate human rights violations.  They fail the corporations that partner with them because the unabated abuses represent a ticking time bomb in those companies’ supply chains.  Moreover, their failure has a multiplier effect, as the ineffective programs take up space in the supply chain and prevent the few successful initiatives that do exist from expanding and bringing their real protections to workers in new sectors and new places.  

In other words, sometimes doing something is even worse than doing nothing.  Sometimes, doing something — when that something is patently inadequate — can actually get in the way of doing the right thing.

Given the scope of the problem, and the scarcity of effective solutions, even the most well-meaning corporations will have little choice but to opt for something over nothing in the short-term in large swaths of their supply chains.  Where effective solutions still do not exist, they will partner with ineffective ones.  That is, quite simply, an unavoidable reality.  

To ensure that workers and companies do not get the short end of that particular existential stick, however, it is essential that corporations seeking real social responsibility begin from an explicit and clearly articulated commitment to those social accountability programs with tangible worker participation and proven enforcement mechanisms, i.e., the mechanisms spelled out at the top of this post and endorsed by the United Nations in its Guiding Principles.  

In practice, that means making an assessment of all potential partners across the landscape of their supply chain, identifying those programs with real and proven capacity to protect workers’ rights, and preferentially:

  1.  Working with those programs where they currently exist, and
  2.  Partnering with those programs to expand their footprint across the supply chain, until those effective initiatives are able to fill the spaces where ineffective programs now provide insufficient protection.  


Meaningful enforcement, or “remedy” in UN terminology, must be the North Star for corporations seeking a path from the current world of rampant and unaddressed human rights abuses toward a world where respect for workers’ dignity is the norm.  It must be the beginning and the end of their journey, even when less effective programs may be necessary while the enforcement-focused programs grow in scope and capacity.  Something is better than nothing only when it is a way station on the road to real, enforceable social responsibility, not the destination itself.