While the debate is still ongoing in Germany, many other countries have already introduced binding legislation on human rights due diligence. Mandatory human rights due diligence forces businesses to rethink the role of social audits. How can social audits contribute to compliance with human rights due diligence?

With human rights legislation on the rise, social audits are increasingly being used in a due diligence context. But in order to make sure that social audits truly contribute to compliance with due diligence laws, we need to rethink their:

  • Motive: from a voluntary to a legally regulated context
  • Function: whereas businesses assigned a wide range of functions to social auditing, its role within a due diligence context is a clearly defined diagnostic function
  • Audit Focus: from supplier codes of conduct to the universally accepted catalogue of human rights
  • Consequences: from a matter of reputation to a matter of liability

In this article, we will explore the question of how social audits should be set up in order to contribute to compliance with human rights due diligence legislation.

How do social audits contribute to compliance with human rights due diligence laws?

Almost all human rights due diligence legislation is based on the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. These principles require all companies to install “a human rights due diligence process to identify, prevent, mitigate and account for how they address their impacts on human rights”.

The Guiding Principles do not specify whether and how social audits should be used. However, it stands to reason that their main function is to assess the status of human rights throughout the supply chain, and to identify actual and potential human rights violations. As such, their function is primarily diagnostic.

On top of that, social audits also have a preventive and corrective function:
– Because suppliers know that regular social audits occur, they are confronted with the need to protect the rights of workers
– For all non-compliances found during social audits, corrective action plans need to be drawn up and implemented

However, as numerous NGOs and human rights activists have emphasized, social audits by themselves do not yield significant long-term benefits for workers. They can only contribute to human rights compliance when the audit results are acknowledged, understood and acted upon by all stakeholders.

What criteria should be covered in social audits, in order to contribute to human rights due diligence?

The UN Guiding Principles are based on the internationally recognized human rights and labor standards, as defined in the International Bill of Human Rights as well as the conventions of the International Labour Organization (ILO). These have been incorporated into a wide range of standards and initiatives. These include, but are not limited to, Sedex SMETA, SA8000, the Responsible Business Alliance, Together for Sustainability, the Aluminium Stewardship Initiative, and the Farm Sustainability Assessment.

What are the implications of human rights liability risks for social audits?

Business who fail to implement an effective human rights due diligence process face significant liability risks. In order to reduce liability risks, we recommend sticking to good industry practice. That means:

– Using international standards, rather than developing custom checklists
– Joining industry sector initiatives when available
– Only trust audit reports from APSCA-recognized audit firms
– Implement documented procedures for processing audit results, keeping records of both the corrective actions taken by suppliers as well as your own decision-making regarding the relationship with the supplier


The reputation of DQS as a reliable and credible audit partner is the result of our strict policy on auditor qualification. We are convinced that a social audit can only be effective if the auditor team has the required technical competence, sector experience, soft skills and integrity. On top of that, the auditors must also be familiar with local languages and regulations.

Source: DQS CFS website ( For more information, please send email to