Oversight and Openness: Reflections on brand-supplier interaction from the Better Work Academy

24 Oct 2022

This brief is based on the internal report The Better Work Experience of Chinese Suppliers by Dr Dimitri Kessler, Founder and Director of the Economic Rights Institute (2021).

The Better Work Academy is an innovative initiative of the ILO-IFC Better Work programme that aims to build the capacity of brands and other actors to drive positive change in the apparel industry. The Academy provides training to staff working in the sustainability and compliance functions of global brands, building their capacity to implement Better Work’s behavioural change methodologies across supply chains and sourcing locations beyond the Better Work programme.

Global brands’ staff participating in the Better Work Academy (BWA) are equipped with skills that allow them to carry out training and advisory activities among their supplier base, focused on improving workplace cooperation mechanisms and problem solving, rather than taking a purely compliance-driven approach to their supply chain sustainability efforts. The Academy curriculum encourages strategies to foster more effective communication in factories, allowing for creative, long-term solutions to address the root causes of non-compliance. In practice, this means that buyer staff are moving away from audit and compliance-based interactions to instead engage with supplier staff in a coaching, communications- driven role. Ultimately, the aim of these efforts is to improve working conditions and increase productivity through better worker-management relations in factories.

Better Work commissioned a qualitative impact study to understand the effects of the Academy training on two levels: among brand staff, in terms of how their mode of interaction with their suppliers has changed; and among workers and managers in factories supplier to these brands, and whether communication and working conditions had improved. Carried out by the Economic Rights Institute between 2019 and 2021, the evaluation built upon past efforts that established the impact of similar workplace cooperation training offered by Better Work and which formed the foundation for the Academy.

Critically, the study took place in China, which allowed for an examination of whether the ways in which brand staff shifted their engagement with suppliers had an effect at the workplace in contexts where Better Work does not have direct operations.

The main finding of the evaluation is that without a commitment to oversight and openness – conditions found necessary for effective problem solving – improvements will not endure or take place at all. Two over-arching themes thus emerge from the research conducted: the need for oversight, which is closely linked to the need for openness. Oversight from clients (brands) is needed in their influence and intervention to promote positive workplace relations. Openness is a broad term used in this research brief to capture the openness of suppliers’ response to the project, freedom of expression, and worker involvement in problem solving. These two overarching dynamics require building of bridges – between clients (brands) and suppliers, and between management and workers.


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