If most factories in emerging countries will tell you they prefer to work with foreign brands, we recently encountered an owner who stood for the opposite. He does not wish to work with foreign brands, simply because it is: too “máfan” (troublesome in Chinese).
The troublesomness to work with foreign brands
In the recent years, many factories realized it might be worth losing a bit of profit being a subcontractor or a tier 2 vendor, rather than having to abide foreign requirements in term of social and environmental practices.
“There is one printing factory in the compound which is approved by foreign brands and pass all the audits. However, they cannot produce enough in quantity due to the strict standards, so they subcontract to us” (Owner of a textile printing company in Guangdong).
To be fair, requirements from brands can be various, more or less clear or well communicated to the manufacturers. Forced to admit that some brands have very mature CSR policies, when others are still debuting, trying to find their marks.
As a consequence, in certain cases, the theoretical standards developed can be proven inadequate or incompatible in practice and may lead to some absurdities:
“The auditor required our washing workers to wear high filtration masks whereas the government, after testing air pollutants, considered regular ones were enough. We invested in these masks to pass the follow up audit but we cannot get our workers to wear them on daily basis, as for they are to constraining. Our money went to waste.”
(Owner of a knitting company in Zhejiang Province)
In that precise example, having rigid standards is counter-productive. The factory has to meaninglessly follow the requirements without using critical sense.
Unfortunately, many of them encounter the problem. They were requested to reach certain standards, without checking if it made sense or if it was implementable.
The overall effect being to fuel window-dressing practices and opacity by fear of de-referencing, while increasing buyers' risk.
The need of changing for a pragmatic, caring and empowering approach
Pragmatic, because there cannot be one-method-fits-all when working with factories and human beings. Of course, there is a need to set general principles for common understanding, but every factory and factory management is different. For progress to be long lasting and implemented on daily basis, improvements need to be convenient and understood.
“In India, we are used to working on the floor for some tasks and not on chairs or tables. In order to comply with Health and Safety standards, we have made arrangements to make it safe and provided protection.” (Owner of a metal factory in Rajasthan, India)
Caring, as responsibility is on both sides. Asking your factories to apply drastic standards while requesting lower prices every year is not a sustainable solution, unless there are substantial productivity gains on the factory side. It is thus necessary to prioritize actions that are truly beneficial for the factory and accompany the management if needed.
“After a social diagnostic by Mindup, our partner agreed on the necessity to renovate their building, in order to improve the safety, productivity and attractiveness of the factory. To support them on that project, we adapted our order planning for that year and committed on increasing volumes after the renovation.” (Owner of a French brand, sourcing in China)
Empowering by inspiring, but still letting the factory take the ownership of the change to sense the financial and human benefits of what THEY built. As a consequence, it will feel logical for them to spread it out to their suppliers and partners in a more meaningful and less constraining approach.
“When very busy, I subcontract some process to a long-term partner nearby. But his factory is smaller and the pressure from clients and government for better manufacturing standards, is increasing. We are a team and have to work together to ensure the future of our business. So, I invited him to visit my workshops and exchange with my employees, then trained him on health and safety issues.” (Owner of a metal assembling factory in Guangdong Province)
Of course, all of this requires a more customized approach with a higher time involvement, however, it is indubitably a guarantee of efficiency. On the top of that creates closer binderies with suppliers reinforcing the partnership on the long run.