Ever since activists started accusing the textile industry of running sweatshops in developing countries, leading brands have been working to eradicate child labour, poor conditions and excessive overtime in supplier factories.

But since monitoring and training have had limited effect, some are looking deeper into their supply chains – and have found the source of the problem often lies in their own practices.

This kind of internal scrutiny is a recent development. Since the 1990s, brands have generally put the onus on supplier factories to comply, developing thousands of codes of conduct.

A multimillion-dollar audit industry has arisen to meet the clothing and footwear industry’s need to show it is not responsible for labour abuses.

Some companies have gone further, developing training programmes for staff – some provide management training to factory supervisors; others instruct workers on their rights and on occupational hazards.

Some progress has been made through these efforts. Child labour is now less of an issue in many factories and health and safety standards have improved.

But problems such as excessive overtime persist in many places. This is prompting some companies to look at their own practices, how those can put pressure on workers at the production end of supply chains.

In its recent corporate responsibility report, Nike admitted that this was the case.

In its audits of 128 factories, it found that for the financial year 2011, more than two-thirds of the incidents of excessive overtime “were attributable to factors within Nike’s control”.

The business practices of clothing brands put pressure on workers in a number of ways.

These include curtailed timelines, poor forecasting and planning, fabric delivery delays and last-minute changes in fabrics and colours. Requiring factories to change a clothing style reduces productivity, increasing the number of hours needed to meet buyer deadlines.

“There can be constant changes,” says Sean Ansett, managing partner of UK-based At Stake Advisors and former director of corporate responsibility at Burberry and a partnerships director at Gap. “If companies don’t connect the dots as to the impact that has, it creates havoc on the factory floor

Part of the problem lies in the way the fashion industry has evolved, with clothing treated as a throwaway commodity and design changes introduced with greater frequency.

Auret van Heerden, head of the Fair Labor Association, a US-based non-profit organisation, says: “Fashion items now have very short life cycles, which means that designers want to monitor the trends in the marketplace and capture those as late as possible. And if that’s the case, time becomes the enemy.”

When deadlines are hard to meet, factories respond either by forcing staff to work overtime or outsourcing production to other factories, where standards may not be as stringent.

Mr Ansett points out: “The deadline might not change, but production ends up in a back alley somewhere and then you have serious labour compliance issues. That’s a real risk for companies.”

A brand is usually one among many clients in an apparel factory. This makes is hard for one company to assess the extent to which poor labour practices are its direct responsibility.

Even so, Hannah Jones, head of sustainability and innovation at Nike, believes companies can do a lot to help factories meet deadlines without resorting to excessive overtime or outsourcing to third-party producers.

Part of this, she says, involves becoming more disciplined across the supply chain with, for example, strict dates for designs to be ready for commercialisation. Ms Jones explains “If your design team is late in handing over designs, that can have a knock-on effect on a factory’s ability to deliver to its deadlines and that can cascade into excessive overtime.”

Nike is looking at how to increase the accuracy of forecasting. It is also working with a smaller number of suppliers than in the past, so its orders represent a larger percentage of factories’ production volume, giving Nike greater ability to influence working conditions.

Of course, apparel businesses need to balance responsible purchasing practices with the demands of the market.

“As a company, you need to respond to what the consumer wants and design to that,” says Ms Jones. “But there are many things you can do to have flexibility, without the volatility that leads to non-compliance issues.”

One solution is making designers and procurement staff aware of how decisions at one end of the supply chain can affect workers at the other.

“When you explain to people the unintended consequences of their acts, it’s very powerful,” says Ms Jones. “It’s amazing to watch how you can change behaviours and come up with solutions.”

This is something the Fair Labor Association is trying to encourage. It has worked with a software company to develop an online tracking tool that allows companies to trace the life cycle of a product, from design to production, alerting them to risks that can arise in the supply chain.

Mr van Heerden says: “Social responsibility isn’t something you do at the end of the process with a social audit. It’s something that starts the minute the designer has an idea and it poses questions all along the design and development phases.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.