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MSN recommends independent consortium to implement ethical purchasing

December 23, 2009

A number of Canadian municipalities and one province have adopted ethical purchasing policies (EPPs) that ensure that purchases of clothing and other apparel products meet the highest possible ethical standards and are produced in accordance with established local labour laws and regulations and international labour standards and applicable codes of conduct.

However, ensuring that vendors are complying with these policies requires some mechanism to investigate complaints as they arise. Suppliers used for apparel vendors are scattered in different countries and investigation of their supply factories can be logistically difficult and prohibitively expensive for one city with a limited budget.

To date, no Canadian municipality has developed a system to investigate credible reports of violations of their EPPs.

In order to address the very real resource constraints faced by municipalities and to ensure that the power of municipal EPPs is effectively used to improve conditions in apparel factories, municipalities should explore collaborative efforts with other governments and institutions that are addressing the same concerns with their vendors.

To that end, MSN believes that Canadian municipalities (and possibly provincial governments) should establish a Canadian consortium to jointly implement their respective EPPs.

How would a consortium work?

The consortium should be administered by one of the participating governments on behalf of all of the members (although a third-party could also be contracted to play this role). Factory disclosure information (usually required by EPPs) should continue to be collected by individual consortium members but centralized for purposes of administration.

In order to bring in the necessary expertise and networks to effectively address labour rights violations across global supply chains, the consortium should contract a reputable third party to conduct monitoring and verification of factories on its behalf, and establish a stakeholder advisory group involving NGOs, trade unions and others with suitable background in addressing labour rights issues in apparel industry supply chains.

Municipalities that want to effectively implement their EPPs should establish an exploratory committee as a first step, with the participation of interested stakeholders.

The Consortium, once established, should decide collectively which third party organization  should be contracted to undertake monitoring and verification of factory conditions on its behalf. The terms and conditions of its contract with the third party organization should include:

  • A minimum number of independent external monitoring visits per year;
  • Developing or providing access to vendor training and management tools to improve vendor compliance over time;
  • Conducting an assessment of vendor factory disclosure to identify risks and prioritize monitoring; and
  • Using its network of civil society organizations in producing countries to inform workers about the policy and identify risks of non-compliance.

Existing initiatives

There are two existing models of collaborative action in implementing EPPs to draw on.

One, the US-based Sweatfree Purchasing Consortium, brings together State and local governments committed to connecting government purchasers to pre-screened sweatfree suppliers and coordinating complaint-based investigations of working conditions. While the SPC is a positive example of a consortium approach, we do not recommend that Canadian cities join the Consortium directly at this time, as initial investigations suggest that there is little overlap in city vendors and cross-border co-operative purchasing may run into legal and/or policy obstacles on both sides of the border. Further, investigations of suppliers producing for smaller Canadian cities may receive limited attention next to the scale of purchasing by major US states and cities.

Secondly, Ontario Catholic School Boards have set up a collective Affiliate of the Worker Rights Consortium which works more or less in the same manner described above. For an annual fee, nine school boards have hired the WRC to conduct investigations into uniform supply factories on their behalf. If a Canadian municipal consortium gets underway, it should explore the possibility of bringing the Ontario Catholic School Boards into the consortium or merging the two initiatives in order to create economies of scale.


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