New Social and Labor Convergence Process Public Effort: Falling in Love With the Problem Could Bring Significant Change for Workers

Guest Blog Post by Colleen Vien, Sustainability Director
Nov 28, 2017 11:00 AM ET
About the Author: As Timberland's Sustainability Director, Colleen Vien manages the global outdoor lifestyle brand's efforts to create responsible products, protect the outdoors, and serve the communities where the brand's employees and consumers live, work and explore.

Our Challenge

For decades, almost all major brands – and now, almost every brand -- have subscribed to one or another factory social/labor compliance monitoring program. Timberland, for example, first launched its Code of Conduct in 1994. At first glance, this is good news as brands increasingly recognize their role to ensure that their factory partners promote worker safety and treat all workers with dignity and respect. Yet after decades of having these programs in place we have not yet fully moved the needle to protect workers’ rights. 

The challenge is that most brands have adopted similar yet distinct supplier expectations and monitoring programs. Since most factories manufacture for multiple brands, most apparel and/or footwear factories are subjected to 25-50 social labor compliance audits every year. Each brand’s factory partners dedicate significant time and resources to complete these very similar, and often duplicative, audits two to four times each month and have little, if any, time or resources to invest in sustainable solutions to key issues. As such, most factory partners are unable to proactively identify potential issues before they negatively impact workers, forcing them to be reactive and only address issues once they have become a problem. 

Collaborative Action

I currently sit on the Steering Committee of the Social Labor Convergence Project (SLCP) – a coalition of over 160 industry brands, retailers, manufacturers, NGOs, academic institutions and government agencies that believe we can improve working conditions when we join forces and create one single assessment for all, which will lead to more resources and improvements for everyone. A converged assessment will allow resources that were previously designated for compliance audits to be redirected towards the improvement of worker conditions.

Prior attempts to align on a shared process have failed because stakeholders were not willing to let go of their own processes. While it is human nature to love our own ideas, it is ultimately much harder, but far more valuable, to fall in love with the problem. When you fall in love with the problem, you are less eager to embrace the first possible solution and move on; you spend some time to understand the challenge, study it from various angles, and look to its root causes; you remain open to additional and possibly better ideas, rather than hasten to narrow the scope of your decision.

Designed for Impact There are clear benefits of a new and shared approach for manufacturers, but the benefit proposition for brands and retailers requires a diligent focus on the end goal. Given the broad support of active stakeholders from all parts of the value chain, I am confident that the time for all parties to embrace a converged process has finally come. While it will take significant levels of trust to achieve, the industry can no longer hold on to a process that clearly is not achieving its goal to improve worker conditions. 

SLCP recently launched its online public consultation designed to gather inputs from external stakeholders on its shared assessment framework. The consultation will run until December 4, 2017 and is open to anyone with a point of view, regardless of their involvement in the footwear and apparel industry. I encourage readers to learn more and get involved by visiting: For more information on Timberland’s commitment to make products responsibly, visit