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Benchmarking global supply chains: the power of the ‘ethical audit’ regime

Abstract
Abstract

This article critically investigates the growing power and effectiveness of the ‘ethical’ compliance audit regime. Over the last decade, audits have evolved from a tool for companies to track internal organisational performance into a transnational governing mechanism to measure and strengthen corporate accountability globally and shape corporate responsibility norms. Drawing on original interviews, we assess the effectiveness of supply chain benchmarks and audits in promoting environmental and social improvements in global retail supply chains. Two principal arguments emerge from our analysis. First, that audits can be best understood as a productive form of power, which codifies and legitimates retail corporations’ poor social and environmental records, and shapes state approaches to supply chain governance. Second, that growing public and government trust in audit metrics ends up concealing real problems in global supply chains. Retailers are, in fact, auditing only small portions of supply chains, omitting the portions of supply chains where labour and environmental abuse are most likely to take place. Furthermore, the audit regime tends to address labour and environmental issues very unevenly, since ‘people’ are more difficult to classify and verify through numbers than capital and product quality.

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This is an Open Access article, distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution licence (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), which permits unrestricted re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
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We are grateful to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada for research funding and to Peter Dauvergne for many inspiring conversations. Thanks as well to Helen Turton, Benjamin Richardson, Joel Quirk, André Broome, and the participants in the Benchmarking in Global Governance workshop held at University of Warwick in March 2014 for comments on an earlier draft of this article. All remaining shortcomings are our own.

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This list contains references from the content that can be linked to their source. For a full set of references and notes please see the PDF or HTML where available.

Stephen Davy and Carol Richards , ‘Supermarkets and private standards: Unintended consequences of the audit ritual’, Agriculture and Human Values, 30:2 (2013), pp. 271281

Power , ‘Evaluating the audit explosion’, Law & Policy, 25:3 (2003), pp. 185202

Richard Locke , The Promise and Limits of Private Power: Promoting Labor Standards in the Global Economy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013)

Michael Barnett and Raymond Duvall , ‘Power in international politics’, International Organization, 59 (Winter 2005), pp. 5557

Stephen Gill (ed.), Gramsci, Historical Materialism, and International Relations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993)

David Osborne and Ted Gaebler , Reinventing Government: How the Entrepreneurial Spirit is Transforming the Public Sector (New York: Plume, 1993)

cf. Julia Black , ‘Decentering regulation: Understanding the role of regulation and self regulation in a “post regulatory” world’, Current Legal Problems, 54 (2001), pp. 103146

Stephen Gill , ‘Globalisation, market civilisation, and disciplinary neoliberalism’, Millennium Journal of International Studies, 24:3 (1995), pp. 413

Peter Newell , ‘Managing multinationals: the governance of investment for the environment’, Journal of International Development, 13:7 (2001), pp. 907919

Philipp Pattberg , ‘The institutionalization of private governance: How business and nonprofit organizations agree on transnational rules’, Governance, 18:4 (2005), pp. 589610

Robert Falkner , ‘Private environmental governance and International Relations: Exploring the links’, Global Environmental Politics, 3:2 (2003), p. 72

Susanne Soederberg , ‘Taming corporations or buttressing market-led development? A critical assessment of the global compact’, Globalizations, 4:4 (2007), p. 503

David Vogel , ‘The private regulation of global corporate conduct: Achievements and limitations’, Business & Society, 49:1 (2010), pp. 6887

William Milberg and Deborah Winkler , Outsourcing Economics: Global Value Chains in Capitalist Development (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013)

Salo Coslovsky and Richard Locke , ‘Parallel paths to enforcement: Private compliance, public regulation, and labour standards in the Brazilian Sugar Sector’, Politics & Society, 41:4 (2013), pp. 497526

Ketty Kortelainen , ‘Global supply chains and social requirements: Case studies of labour conditions auditing in the People’s Republic of China’, Business Strategy and the Environment, 17 (2008), p. 433

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Review of International Studies
  • ISSN: 0260-2105
  • EISSN: 1469-9044
  • URL: /core/journals/review-of-international-studies
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