The role of social compliance audits in emerging countries – a literature review and research agenda

by Mar 19, 2023Workshop0 comments

Keywords: Audits, social compliance, developing countries

Purpose: Social compliance audits in developing countries have developed into a multi-billion-dollar industry with the potential to contribute significantly to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, but audit practices attract heavy critique from scholars as well as NGOs (Huq & Stevenson, 2020; Kelly, Miedema, Vanpeperstraete, & Winterstein, 2019; Locke & Samel, 2018; Terwindt & Armstrong, 2019). Despite a pool of conceptual and theoretical papers analysing audits in a broader perspective, empirical studies analysing actual audit practices (what happens during the audit) and their effects are scattered and point in different directions. The purpose of this literature review of published empirical findings is to identify central opportunities and challenges related to social compliance audits in developing countries.

Methodology: This systematic literature review draws on the findings of 26 empirical studies. Using rigorous selection criteria, the 26 reviewed articles were narrowed down from an initial pool of 2950 articles. The most important selection criteria are empirical articles about audits in developing/emerging economies with a focus on social compliance/sustainability/responsible business conduct.

Findings: The review shows that the effects of audits on workings conditions are still an unresolved issue. Based on review findings, it is not possible to conclude if audits actually “work”, as most reviewed articles (15) find social audits to have mixed effects on social compliance, according to their empirical data. This leaves five articles concluding zero effects, three concluding positive effects, and three articles concluding that social audits have negative effects on social compliance based on empirical data. Since social audits cannot be concluded to either “work” or the contrary, it is relevant to scrutinize the review findings for conditions identified as significant to the effects of social audits in a positive/negative direction. Summing up, long-term effects of social audits on social compliance are conditioned by a variety of factors, which we have narrowed down to, 1) audit practices, 2) auditor skills, 3) decoupling, and 4) remediation systems. 

Practical implications: The results can help international buyers, suppliers, and auditing companies to develop audits that are more efficient, and at the same time open for better coordination with governmental labour regulation and inspection.

Relevance: Social audits is a multi-billion-dollar industry with the opportunity to become a key element for improving social compliance in developing countries. The review gathers empirical analyses of social audits and present variables that seems to be determining factors to the effects of social audits. Finally, an outcome of the review is the identification of gaps and directions for further research by clarifying the relations between the effects and the audit practices for improving social standards in global supply chains.