New Cause Proposal: International Supply Chain Accountability

By NunoSempere @ 2020-04-01T07:56 (+32)

[Epistemic Status: Totally serious; altered afterwards to remove some April Fool's content. Thanks to Aaron Gertler for reading a version of this draft.]

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What is international supply chain accountability?

I think that one useful way to define the term is

  1. as a strategy
  2. used to forcefully incentivize global companies to align their production processes with a given morality,
  3. making use of the fact that these global companies are hit much harder by reactions, thoughts, incentives, reprisals, etc. which happen in their country of origin,
  4. as opposed to in India, Bangladesh, Vietnam and other countries in their chain of production, even about things which happen in these other countries.

One could also understand supply chain accountability as a goal (making multinational companies less exploitative) rather than as a strategy, in the same way that one could understand effective altruism in terms of its ideals, rather than in terms of the specific strategies which it employs.

Example 1: After the collapse of a Bangladeshi garment factory which killed more than a thousand people [source / en], a media shitstorm happened around the world. Transforming the temporary flare in outrage into specific and lasting commitments and agreements was the work of many organizations [1] under the banner of the concept of supply chain accountability. See: The Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety

Example 2: Supply chain accountability in the case of Inditex, one of the biggest multinationals in the textile industry, over the last 20 years: [source / es]:

Might this be of interest to Effective Altruism?


Gut feeling: Very large.

Multinational companies employ a lot of people, directly or indirectly, on their chain of production. In the case of Inditex, this corresponds to 2.2 million people, distributed across 5,000 factories in 40 countries [source / es / 2019]. This has grown from ~1 million in 2014 [source / es].

Given the number of people involved, reducing the incidence of fatal accidents, sexual abuse, exploitative working conditions, making those working conditions marginally better, marginally increasing wages, might be impactful, as would accelerating the rate at which that happens. Here is a back-of-the-envelope Guesstimate model which incorporates the number of people in Inditex's chain of production and their estimated work times, in order to calculate the estimated lives saved due to the fire and safety accord mentioned above.

The main conclusion is that scale of the problem is so vast, that any percentage improvement is likely to be massively beneficial. In the specific case of deaths averted because of the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, I estimate a cost effectiveness of 4400$ per life saved, with a 90% confidence interval of $2 300 to $18 000. However, note that companies themselves pledge that money.

The model has a second part, in which I try to produce some estimates in terms of QALYs, and in which I use my best judgement in the absence of hard sources. That is, I estimate the improvement in life quality because of less shitty working conditions, but I’m building on thin air because hard numbers don’t exist. I'm less confident in this part, not only because of uncertainty as to the magnitudes themselves, but also because cost-effectiveness becomes less meaningful when companies would pledge the money themselves. Additionally, it is not clear to me what proportion of that impact would go to one particular organization, like Comisiones Obreras, as opposed to the many other organizations which are working on the area.


Gut feeling: Somewhat tractable, but perhaps not by the EA community as it is now.

My intuitions about this being somewhat tractable come from the proof of possibility which Inditex and Comisiones Obreras provide, as well as the 46 other Global Framework Agreements made by the IndustriALL federation

How tractable is this for the EA community in particular? Here are some considerations:


Gut feeling: Many stakeholders, but I'm unclear what their average level of effectiveness is.

While researching the area, I got the impression of a proliferation of stakeholders (IndustriALL, MSI-TN, FairTrade Initiative, the ILO, etc.), such that an additional stakeholder of average effectiveness would just stand in the way. It might thus make more sense to support and expand existing organizations (chiefly, IndustriALL), whereas with manpower or with funds.

An additional point is that if several organizations define corporate responsibility differently, companies have a tendency to choose the least demanding definitions, so an additional organization might instead only be able to do harm. [3]

Tangentially, some of the primary sources for Inditex's agreement were in Spanish, and I wonder whether EA has neglected charities in Spanish-speaking countries because of this language barrier. On this point, I have copious notes on the aforementioned agreement & related sources, which are available, in Spanish, here

Some Open Questions.

Does the EA philosophy help here?

Unionists are not effective altruists. In particular, they're not particularly utilitarian. It's not clear that the effective altruism philosophy or people would be beneficial here, as opposed to capable unionists convinced of the importance of worker organization, given that unionists already have something working.

Money could be used, but I am not sure whether the relevant organizations accept donations (I have asked a while ago, but I’m waiting for an answer). In particular, I'd expect that Comisiones Obreras / IndustriALL could meaningfully use very large amounts of money, but that they might be reticent to take it.

In particular, both IndustriALL and the unions it is composed of already have a working model based on individual worker affiliation, rather than on patronage. It may be that this model allows them to have little to no principal/agent problems.

Does Inditex's Agreement generalize?

Or was Inditex just particularly cooperative? It does seem that Inditex was particularly cooperative, in comparison to, for example, another Spanish retailer which goes by the name of Mango. Which other companies would be similarly influenced by the public opinion in their own countries?

Is any EA local group organized well enough that a corporate accountability campaign targeting a particular company could be created and carried out, resulting in all factories in its direct and indirect chain of production being audited, within 10 years? Would there be any company particularly well-suited enough for this?

In particular, I’d intuitively expect convincing a previously reluctant company to sign such a supply chain accountability agreement a to be comparable in hardness to the one which doubled Zurich’s development aid [4].

How do you quantify the impact of corporate responsibility campaigns?

Right now, supply chain accountability campaigns have not been focused on measuring impact in the sense understood by the EA community. However, Comisiones Obreras are extremely transparent, and they have released copious amounts of information as to their projects and activities, which could be built upon to estimate their impact.

Besides working factory-to-factory, the Spanish trade unionists which I looked into also had a theory of broader systemic change:

Estimating the validity of this theory of systemic change could also be done by looking at the history of trade unionism. (Or, better yet, by doing a randomized trial introducing the idea in a country in which it isn't very developed yet.)


I am ignorant of how the marginal impact of work in this area compares to other policy work. The biggest thing international supply chain accountability has going for it is the scale; it could potentially absorb both great quantities of money and effort, and positively affect the lives of a very large number of people [5]

The negatives are the poor fit between EA and the trade unionism movement. In particular, EA isn't really conscious of its sometimes petty-bourgeois character [6], whereas trade unionism, having marxist roots and inclinations, takes class differences seriously. For example, Comisiones Obreras still is a communist/socialist organization (but less so than in the past). It is possible that having these organizations accept money would take some work, but I also believe that they could meaningfully use it.

Overall, perhaps International Supply Chain Accountability would be a good target for a shallow investigation by any EA organization which wishes to diversify their moral parliament.

[1] Which organizations? The [Bangladesh Accord website] mentions:

“The Accord is a legally-binding agreement between global brands & retailers and IndustriALL Global Union & UNI Global Union and eight of their Bangladeshi affiliated unions to work towards a safe and healthy garment and textile industry in Bangladesh.”

These two global unions are, in practice, meta-unions, to which many other organizations are affiliated, like Comisiones Obreras in Spain.

[2] See: Will companies meet their animal welfare commitments?

[3] I can’t remember which organization was said to be less strict than the rest, and trying to track it down brings unrelated criticism of FairTrade in the food producing sector, rather than in the textile industry.

[4] For example, what's up with Adidas in Germany? Is their corporate responsibility approach just blabber? (Most likely.) Do they have independent auditors? (Most likely not.) ‌

[5] This assessment also applies to marxist revolution more generally.

Moreover, the EA movement could learn from the mistakes of communism. A point of reference which I’ve personally found enlightening is be The Revolution, Betrayed, by Trotsky.

[6] If one attends EA Global, one does not get the impression that EAs, after they put down their vegetarian cocktails, will go on to the streets and sing The Internationale. Perhaps they’re missing out.