Perfection is no friend to Social Responsibility

Written by Carla Susmilch of Sumerra

Perfect – the word holds such allure. It exists as a concept, but is there such a thing in the real world? factory staffComparisons between the world in which we live, and a perfect world that can only be imagined, is responsible for untold suffering. Defeatist? No. There is nothing contradictory about knowing the status quo is unsatisfactory and that perfection is a mirage. What should we strive for if perfection is an illusion? Improvement!

There is no place for “perfection” in Social Responsibility. “Perfection” is the unequivocal enemy of Good in our field.

“If you want small changes, work on your behavior; if you want quantum-leap changes, work on your paradigms.” Steven Covey, the author of The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People, does a great job of driving this point home. The way your company sees its Social Responsibility function makes all the difference in how it is executed and the results it achieves. Is Social Responsibility a compliance arm that allows for “plausible deniability” in the Supply Chain, or is it a partnership that creates competitive advantages and improves sustainability?

Often, demands of perfection are the refuge of those practicing Social Responsibility out of fear. This paradigm suggests that perfection as the standard is the best means to risk elimination. After all, any and all issues pose a risk – if it didn’t matter it wouldn’t be an audit item. There are a variety of drawbacks to this approach however. Most notably, unless there are significant resources invested in monitoring, the picture you have of your suppliers is likely the one they have painted for you.

Pressure for perfection and implicit or explicit penalties for failure drives up your partner’s incentive for deceit. A hidden problem is still a problem, and a hidden problem is one that is more likely to turn into an urgent crisis. An eye-opening article by the New York Times demonstrated the many ways that factories can fudge – even with the toughest inspectors. From the article – “And even when inspectors are tough, factory managers find ways to trick them and hide serious violations, like child labor or locked exit doors.” A focus on perfection drives up the chance that risk visibility is being reduced – but not the risk itself.

When Social Responsibility is focused on doing Good, it is focused on opportunities to make things better – not perfect immediately. This paradigm confers a host of benefits. It decreases deceit. It increases cooperation. In turn, improvements are more likely to be made. Real improvement results in a reduction in real, not just perceived, risk. It is important to remember that your partners are, and employ, human beings who by their nature are not perfect. Look around your own organization closely enough, and you could probably find areas where you’d fail your own audit.

The adversarial relationships engendered by perfection can be mitigated through two-way transparency. It is important to let your suppliers know that you’re seeking a partnership for improvements that will have mutually beneficial consequences. One option would be to make it clear your first audit sets a baseline without immediate consequences, and that you demand transparency – not perfection. This provides the foundation for true risk reduction.

Education, Training, and Engagement are the keys to improvements that lead to Good. This is the approach that improves the lives of workers everyday, instead of a few hours during an inspection. This is the paradigm that is needed to diminish the risk of tragedies like Rana Plaza and the Tazreen fire. The Good approach leads to improved welfare across time periods. Since Good is the friend of your organization, “Perfect” is its enemy too. It’s time to consider partnership rather than perfection.

C. SusmilchCarla Susmilch is a Program Manager for Sumerra – a global compliance and consulting company. She has previous experience working in Social Responsibility in a Brand role, and currently represents a Third Party Provider. For further information, please contact Carla Susmilch at or visit to see a list of services Sumerra can provide you.