Are Supplier Codes of Conduct Effective?

By Sarah Vandenbroucke

Multinational impact on human rights in global supply chains is gaining momentum, and is increasingly discussed by legislators and academics. To do business responsibly, companies often adopt supplier codes of conduct through which social and human rights are protected. These codes are also the documents to be found in our database.Since supplier codes of conduct (hereinafter: SCs) form self-regulatory tools, companies are free to use wording and compliance methods of their own choice. Does this make supplier codes solely window dressing policy documents?

A recently published paper by Sarah Vandenbroucke, one of the contributors to the Database of Business Ethics, uncovers some interesting findings on how the use of SCs can improve labour conditions in global supply chains. She identifies which conditions influence the effectiveness of SCs, on the basis of 33 scientific papers. Her paper highlights the needed conditions to ensure the SCs’ impact on labour conditions. What should companies, suppliers, and institutional actors do to ensure SCs’ effectiveness? 

At the institutional level, it is shown that pressure to adopt a comprehensive SC may help align the goals with the practice, by making sure that SC content includes the goal of improving labour standards. Within companies themselves, appointing new committed professionals, such as sustainability or compliance officers, may lead in time to the creation of new policies. To reach actual improvement of the practices, these individuals should be motivated both intrinsically and ideologically. Moreover, committed compliance officers should be given sufficient power to carry out the policy in everyday practice, both in terms of organisational and financial capacities. They should be enabled to create strong ties with suppliers, put in place intensive and long-term surveillance with several audits, and ensure that the buyer company financially participates in implementation costs that may arise.

Finally, it is necessary for corporations to transform global supply chain management systems and leave the traditional compliance model to tackle root causes of workers’ rights violations. This new type of governance proposed by scholars is called the ‘peer-to-peer governance’ or the ‘commitment approach’. This requires creating long-term, trusting buyer–supplier relationships where stakeholders get engaged in the implementation process, by granting workers’ representatives a seat at the table.

Vandenbroucke concludes that SCs’ effectiveness highly depends on the efforts made in code implementation by both buyers and suppliers, and on their intrinsic ethical commitments to prevail decent labour conditions. Despite some factors contributing to the implementation of SCs in global supply chains, this self-regulatory policy has undeniable limits to improve labour conditions worldwide, thus needs to be supplemented by public regulation. The development of a legal framework on corporate mandatory due diligence currently discussed at the EU level, would certainly contribute to enhancing corporate responsibility and actions in limiting human, social, and environmental risks in global supply chains, and hopefully support and complement effective self-regulatory policies. 

The full paper was published in the Journal Regulation & Governance in February 2023. Reach out to Sarah Vandenbroucke for more information, at the following email address: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Additionally, if you are interested in conducting your own research into (supplier) codes of conduct, you can find over 200 companies’ codes in our database. To assist you in using our database for this research, we have also published a user guide.


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