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Fred Waelter - BSI - Highlights Two Vital Questions Discerning Retailers and Brands are Asking Their Supply Chain Auditors

Auditing supply chains is about so much more than ticking boxes, says Fred Waelter, Principal Consultant, Sustainable Supply Chains, with the BSI and a member of the Seafood Task Force’s External Stakeholder Advisory Group. Discerning retailers and brands are demonstrating their true commitment to human rights and environmental best practice by demanding measurable consistency in approach and audit competency for seafood supply chains. 

The seafood industry is probably one of the most challenging when it comes to monitoring and solving the issues of social compliance in the supply chain. 

With manufacturing and processing operations on land, you may audit, work on remediation, check in on progress, and there may be another re-audit down the road. A factory is stationary; it doesn’t move. 

But imagine a boat with a Taiwanese flag, fishing in the area of the Solomon Islands, with a crew of fishers from Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Where and how should inspections take place? What laws apply and in which jurisdictions? People in the seafood supply chain are constantly moving all over the world so these are relevant questions. 

With monitoring and remediation in the seafood space, it’s like trying to fix the train, while the train is still moving.

But it is fixable and what we’re seeing is a welcome trend for discerning retailers and brands to go much further and deeper in their commitment to ensuring oversight across their supply chain.

They are asking two simple but vital questions: Does this audit really cover every aspect of worker welfare and sustainable fishing in my supply chain - from vessel to plate – and is it being conducted by professional auditors who know my industry?

To answer the first question, you need to look at how your audit protocols and tools have been created. 

With the input of retailers, brands, manufacturers, processors, professional auditors, and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), the Seafood Task Force has created an all-encompassing standard and audit system that allows for a comprehensive look into performance of the various steps in the seafood supply chain vis-à-vis the Auditable Standards of the Seafood Task Force. The tools ensure consistency in audit approach and that key elements are covered by auditors in the field. The design of the system also places onus on supply chain partners to take initiative in terms of evaluating compliance in the branches of their respective parts of the supply chain, prevents duplicative auditing efforts, and more importantly, builds a foundation on which remediation and capacity building can follow in order to effectively address issues at the root.

A unique aspect of the Seafood Task Force’s approach is that the STF has always ensured that all stakeholders in the seafood space have a seat at the table – including retailers, brands, manufacturers, auditors, and non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Many companies operate policies in an NGO vacuum, with policies and procedures which have not had any NGO involvement or validation. Others opt to work with just one NGO, so don’t benefit from the invaluable insights and experience of a wider team of experts. STF benefits from the inputs of a number of NGOs, which each bring a different set of skills and sometimes, different areas of focus, to the table.

It’s not common for NGOs to be part of or have buy-in to organisations like the STF, but we always look to the Task Force as an example of what works. There is a pragmatism, and they do things that are meaningful and effective. NGOs have a fundamental role to play in shaping those actions and, of course, to hold members to account for delivering them.

An example of the pragmatism of the STF is some of the work that the Task Force is currently partnering with BSI to complete. STF Members are currently auditing their own supply chains across the Western and South Pacific Oceans. BSI is conducting research into relevant country laws to support these companies in understanding the legal requirements that apply to fishers of various nationalities while working in still other jurisdictions.

Coming back to the second key question: are the people who are undertaking our audits competent to do so? 

Sounds obvious, I know, but the level of expertise required to deliver social compliance audits is substantial. Worker interviews demand targeted training, in the classroom and in the field, with the specific challenges of the seafood supply chain demanding very specific knowledge and expertise. How long do you spend on a vessel; how many of the crew do you interview; what constitutes a truly representative sample?  Audit protocols cover much of this, but third-party auditor training is a key part of STF’s programme.

There is still a long way to go as anyone involved in this sector recognizes, but I am confident that when leading retailers and global brands are asking the right questions and seeking the best advice, we are going to achieve success.

  • A supply chain and human rights expert with twenty years’ experience in Corporate Social Responsibility in supply chains and social auditing, Fred Waelter is Principal Consultant for Sustainable Supply Chains at global standards at the British Standards Institution (BSI).
  • The original author of the family of standards that later became ISO 9000 for quality management systems, the national standards body of the United Kingdom, and a 15,000-strong global community of experts in standards in a variety of fields, BSI works in 195 countries and with thousands of organisations, including the world’s largest and most successful brands.

The views in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the STF

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