Filling the gap between business, large international institutions and governments, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) play a major role in identifying areas that lack transparency, for example those concerning workers’ rights. They provide invaluable insights into risks hidden in the supply chains of large international organizations, expose them and sometimes provide temporary solutions. Until recently, NGOs relied almost entirely on their own investigative work, oftentimes putting their employees in danger. Nowadays, with new technology used to overcome difficulties, there is even more they can do to help companies understand what is really going on at their suppliers – and shape the future of sustainable procurement in a much safer way.
A Dangerous Scene
A good example of the type of risk taken by NGO staff is the infamous case of China Labor Watch visiting the manufacturers of Ivanka Trump-branded shoes: When the NGO investigators went undercover to explore alleged labor violations they reported on crude verbal and physical abuse, including one of the workers being hit in the head with the sharp end of a high-heeled shoe. But even when companies are willing to cooperate and invite NGOs to their factories, investigators cannot always be sure that what they are seeing is a true representation of a typical working day. It is not uncommon for companies to prepare for such visits and ensure that workers do not disclose any malpractice.
Smartphones to the Rescue
But with the use of technology it is a different story. And it need not be technology that is particularly cutting edge or sophisticated. For instance, ordinary mobile phones or smartphones can give NGOs direct feedback from factory workers in a way that does not require an on-site visit. And it is their mass adoption, combined with innovative applications, that has made it possible. In some areas, for example in China, there is a high enough penetration of smartphones to enable feedback through an application, e.g. on WeChat. But the systems also serve ordinary phones, for example using text messages or automated voice systems and recording to conduct surveys.
Multiple Uses of Mobile Apps
According to the WeChat Impact Report by Tencent Research, the app currently has 700 million active monthly users, with 94 percent logging in daily. As much as 55 percent use WeChat more than one hour per day and 32 percent for longer than two hours. Besides the hardware, data analytics software can be used to decipher the inflow of direct workers’ feedback information and to distinguish fact from data noise. It can automate and scale up the collection of valuable insights, which would not have been possible via human-based data collection and analysis.
Apart from direct feedback from factory workers, mobile technologies allow NGOs to tap into communities and capture information about local environmental issues. The Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs (IPE) in China released “Blue Sky,” a mobile application, which collects user provided data about locations of polluted rivers and transfers it to local authorities. Since 2004, the app has captured over 280,000 environmental supervision records for enterprises.
Drones are another example of how NGOs benefit from technology. Used for aerial photography, air quality sampling and many other purposes drones have been popular for some time. But it is only in recent years that the cost of owning one has dropped so much that they are available from regular retailers. In addition, they are much easier to use thanks to improved connectivity technology, and can even be operated from a smartphone. NGOs now use drones to monitor illegal logging, conservation efforts, pollution levels etc.
The use of technology does not, in any way, diminish NGOs’ role in exposing the areas in society that desperately need more transparency. Instead, technology enhances their capability to achieve their objectives and contribute to sustainable procurement worldwide. Moreover, NGOs’ adoption of such technologies has fostered closer cooperation with technology providers, for example the WEST principles, launched June 2017, which aims to maximize the potential of technologies so as to reduce and solve workers abuse in global supply chains.
EcoVadis works closely with organizations such as Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), Research and Development Centre (RDC) and Ressources Humaines Sans Frontieres (RHSF) to identifying ethics and fair business practice risks across the globe.
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