Evaluating the Impact of SA 8000 Certification

by Michael J. Hiscox, Claire Schwartz & Michael W. Toffel

Overview — The Social Accountability 8000 Standard (SA 8000), along with other types of certification standards and corporate codes of conduct, represents a new form of voluntary "private-governance" of working conditions in the private sector, initiated and implemented by companies, labor unions, and nongovernmental activist groups cooperating together. There is an ongoing debate about whether this type of governance represents real and substantial progress or mere symbolism. This paper reviews prior evaluations of private codes of conduct governing workplace conditions, including Ethical Trading Initiative's Base Code, Nike's Code of Conduct, and Fair Trade certification. The authors then discuss several best practices that should be employed in future evaluations of such codes of conduct. Key concepts include:

  • An ongoing debate is raging about whether such codes represent substantive efforts to improve working conditions or are merely symbolic efforts that allow organizations to score marketing points and counteract stakeholder pressure by merely filing some paperwork.
  • Evaluations designed with the features described in this paper will help introduce systematic evidence to these important debates. This could help identify which particular codes are best able to distinguish organizations possessing superior working conditions.
  • Such evaluations may shed light on which elements of the codes are most effective, which types of monitoring systems represent best practices, and which areas are most in need of improvement.

Author Abstract

SA 8000, along with other types of certification standards and corporate codes of conduct, represents a new form of private governance of working conditions, initiated and implemented by companies, labor unions, and non-governmental activist groups. Whether these codes represents a substantive or merely symbolic approach to governing working conditions is the subject of an ongoing debate, which to date has been dominated by philosophical and political discourse due to a lack of systematic evaluation. Very little empirical evidence is available to indicate whether these codes legitimately distinguish adopting companies and factories as providing better working environments (e.g., health and safety, freedom of association, fair pay practices) and whether these codes have affected their business outcomes (e.g., staff turnover and absenteeism, product defect rates, sales growth). In this book chapter, we review the existing evaluations of other private codes governing workplace conditions, including the Ethical Trading Initiative's Base Code, Nike's code of conduct, and Fair Trade. We then describe several key elements of program evaluation that are becoming standard practice in other domains, which we believe should be incorporated in future evaluation studies of these codes. We emphasize the importance of examining performance over time, comparing adopters to non-adopters, and incorporating strategies to overcome selection bias. Evaluations that meet the highest methodological standards are critical to inform the debates about this new form of private governance, and to highlight opportunities for improvement in their standards and monitoring procedures.

Paper Information