Consumption has increased exponentially in recent years. But not many people think about how the products they consume are made, or who has made them. There are countless mechanisms in place to stop the exploitation of workers in global supply chains, including international treaties, conventions and regulations, domestic regulations and multi-stakeholder collaborative initiatives. 

‘Invisible hands’ 

Yet you only have to talk to who those who work in factories in India producing garments for several well-known international fashion brands to learn that nothing has been effective so far. In fact, some of these mechanisms have resulted in even more exploitation. 

There are two main reasons for this. Firstly, such mechanisms have not resolved the power differences among the supply chain stakeholders. When there are power differences, communication won’t be candid and so diagnosis and resolution become difficult. Secondly, such mechanisms disregard, for example, sourcing agents and consultants, and focus too much on brands and suppliers. Without these actors, implementation will become difficult. 

Traditionally, sourcing agents in developing countries are assumed to be brokers negotiating contracts and facilitating trade interactions between suppliers and Multi-National Corporations (MNCs).

Our research has found that sourcing agents, beyond simply acting as trade brokers, assume a “sustainability intermediary” role to informally manage and reconcile the interests of MNCs and suppliers by working around cultural, linguistic and power differences. 

Legitimacy

It also shows that a sourcing agent can act as an effective sustainability intermediary when they acquire in-depth knowledge about the context and parties involved; gain legitimacy within their fields and the recognition of the parties involved; translate adequately the expectations of each party to the other; and are appreciated for such activities.

In contemporary globalised forms of production systems, many such intermediate actors, including academics, consultants, and civil society, act as “sustainability intermediaries”. Fine-tuning their roles and contributions is an important way to bring about improvements in the social and environmental performance of global production networks. 

This Project is led by Dr Vivek Soundararajan, Lecturer in Strategy and International Business, Birmingham Business School.