Fresh produce industry stakeholders came together to launch the Ethical Charter Implementation Program in early November, which aims to recognize and strengthen engagement around labor practices in the fresh produce industry without additional audits. Six founding buyers — Costco Wholesale, Kroger, McDonald’s USA, Sam’s Club, Target and Walmart — are inviting more than 100 of their suppliers to use the capacity-building platform to strengthen their farm labor management systems. Those suppliers are in turn inviting growers into the ECIP LAB online platform to assess their labor practices.
ECIP LAB offers three channels for engagement. In the learn channel, growers explore the management systems required to implement each principle of the Ethical Charter on Responsible Labor Practices. In the assess channel, growers rank their own management systems, understanding that they can answer honestly because their responses are not visible to their customers. Lastly, the benchmark channel allows growers to track progress over time as they prioritize and address opportunities to strengthen their systems. ECIP measures an employer’s willingness to engage and improve labor practices rather than testing compliance with a standard.
“At Walmart, we are excited about the potential of this program to scale across the produce value chain without adding additional audits,” said Laura Himes, vice president of global sourcing for Walmart. “What we like about ECIP is that it focuses on continuous improvement while offering many tools and resources for growers to assess their management structures, benchmark their progress and continue to improve over time.”
Suppliers who were involved in the program’s development and testing also affirm the value of creating better alignment with the Ethical Charter through capacity building rather than through a compliance program and additional audits. “As a supplier, we are excited to support ECIP as a tool that credibly measures employer engagement and encourages continuous improvement, thereby enhancing our relationships with both our customers and our growers,” said Wyatt Maysey, director of sustainability at Taylor Farms. “Our hope is that the industry embraces this program as it is an opportunity to help reduce the audit burden already felt by growers.”
“EFI is committed to multistakeholder collaboration, so we’re proud to have worked with leaders from across the industry to develop and launch the ECIP LAB platform. Amid a labor shortage, strong management systems and responsible practices are an important recruitment and retention tool,” said Peter O’Driscoll, executive director of Equitable Food Initiative, one of the implementing organizations for the program. “ECIP will be a valuable resource for employers who want to build better workplaces.”
A small group of suppliers and growers took part in a beta test prior to the official program launch. In addition to offering feedback to strengthen the ECIP LAB platform, participants noted the value of the program. “We believe the Ethical Charter Implementation Program is an important step for the entire industry and reflects our values and mission at NatureSweet,” said Fernanda Suarez, the company’s sustainability and social impact director. “We are glad to invite our growers to access the relevant resources and information in ECIP LAB and believe it provides a great opportunity to learn and support them in continuous improvement of their practices.”
Participating buyers are each crafting their own invitation to their suppliers. Suppliers are encouraged to speak with customers about expectations for using ECIP. If suppliers haven’t yet received a request from a buyer, suppliers or growers can register for the ECIP LAB platform and begin to learn about and assess their management systems prior to receiving an invitation.
The program is funded by an annual subscription fee paid by the buyers, suppliers and growers who use ECIP LAB. Buyers pay $25,000 per year; suppliers pay between $1,800 and $9,000 depending on their annual sales; and growers pay $200 per year. Founding buyers also committed an additional $100,000 each for the platform’s development.
ECIP will generate a single engagement profile for each grower and supplier, which they can share with as many customers as they choose. More information about the program can be found at ethicalcharterprogram.org.
Industry groups published the Ethical Charter on Responsible Labor Practices in 2018 to provide a common baseline for accountability and transparency that can be widely understood, accepted and applied across the global produce and floral supply chains. In 2020, several major buyers and suppliers came together to develop ECIP as a way to support agricultural employers to implement the principles of the Ethical Charter. They agreed that ECIP should focus on capacity building rather than compliance testing and should not impose more audits. After a pilot program in 2021, the Walmart Foundation made a $2 million grant in 2022 to help launch and scale ECIP as a self-assessment tool to strengthen labor management systems at field level.