A naïve wish for 2015

 

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Radically transparent supply chains

Once upon a time, in a far away land, the people decided to find out who made all the wonderful things that appeared in the town shop every morning…

As we approach 2015 there is perhaps a small opportunity for some wishful thinking upon a star. The coming year looks like being a tough one. Whilst we might expect good news on US-Iranian relations, tensions between the West and Russia could well deepen and extremists of various kinds are likely to inflict more horrors on the innocent, as recently took place in Pakistan. Europe looks like it will continue its walk towards increasing populism and xenophobia. We can only hope that enough multilateralism will prevail for forthcoming agreements on Climate Change and the Sustainable Development Goals. But what on business and human rights?

We all wish there will not be another incident of the scale of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh (which killed over 1,100 in April 2013) or the Turkish mine disaster (which killed over 300 in May 2014). Globalisation has lifted millions, if not billions, out of abject poverty over the past thirty years but it has also widened national inequalities and increased the power of non-state actors such as business. We can and should work for stronger laws, stronger enforcement and greater accountability but will it be enough? The social contract that binds our societies is shifting and national governments are struggling to keep up with the demands of communities and the wider population.

There perhaps has not been a time in history when democracy has been so widespread but also so undervalued. There are also signs that some governments want businesses to play an increasing role in the social contract itself, be it in terms of internet governance, on the one hand, or public-private partnerships to realise the Sustainable Development Goals, on the other. Given it will take years, if not decades, to respond adequately to these changing power dynamics, what are the essential steps we take in the meantime?

Greater transparency is clearly an essential step and this will not be news to any reader. Over the past ten years, there have been a range of important initiatives between governments, business and civil society on issues such as extractive sector revenue and tax, conflict minerals, timber or even the social audits of ICT, apparel or food companies. But we have a problem. These important initiatives, or laws that mandate transparency, operate outside of wider public awareness or scrutiny. And this lack of public interest limits the political prioritisation given to human rights by governments, the responsiveness of business and the resources available to NGOs.

Fundamentally, there is a lack of sufficient incentives within most value chains for lasting systemic change. For example, this week’s BBC Panorama undertook another documentary on a leading brand, this time Apple, and allegations of the abuse of migrant temporary workers in the supply chain including excessive overtime. In previous years it has been other brands with allegations of  child labour and so on. The issues raised are very serious but they are often, but not always,  systemic in nature. If you might think that such media attention would lead to changes in consumer behavior, well think again. The BBC journalist fronting the documentary on Apple admitted at the start of the piece how much he loved the product, as do I, and many people I know. Just looking at the number of iPhones and Macbooks evident at the recent United Nations Annual Forum on Business and Human Rights – that says it all – we all love to buy quality brands if we can afford to, perhaps feeling that even experts do not have the knowledge they need to make consumer choices either way.  Let me be clear – we don’t yet have the objective benchmarks to make such a decision about any ICT company and this is part of the problem and well as the frustration every time such a documentary is made.

If companies do change, and some are making big efforts, it is not driven by consumer behaviour or investors at the moment. Just think how much more we could achieve if we brought consumers and investors with us!

There are clearly not enough incentives and disincentives in the system for fundamental change. Law should provide more of these – particularly laws that capture the “submerged” actors who are not brought into the debate by public or political commentary. Conflict mineral legislation is one example of this and we can hope in 2015 to see more binding law relating to modern day slavery and the incorporation of the 2014 ILO Forced Labour Protocol into national legal regimes. And, yes, there might well be a case for a binding international treaty on business and human rights (more on this in 2015). But it would indeed be naïve to think that law alone will really drive the behavioural change we need amongst consumers and investors.

Also needed are market-based drivers. That is why many of us think that the public ranking of companies performance against human rights benchmarks is critical and we have recently launched a broad-based initiative to achieve this over the years ahead. Investors have a critical role to play: few companies will want to be bottom of their sector’s league table in terms of their human rights impacts. But consumers are also a critical factor that can no longer be over-looked.

So here are two radical fairytale endings.

The first possible ending: imagine that we in our fairytale town and when we go to the large furniture store (well known for its wonderful flat-packs) and you have the chance of interacting with a human being at the other end of the value chain. Through the magic of information technology and an image projected onto a screen, you would be able to pose questions to a worker representative at that week’s featured supplier on the other side of the planet and ask whatever question you liked (through an interpreter) about working conditions, the worker’s concerns and aspirations. Within the next ten years, one of the major retail brands will do this and, by doing so, begin to change the whole dynamics of corporate responsibility. It is nonsensical that consumers currently carry no responsibility for their own purchasing behaviour, this can and will change if consumers are given an opportunity to engage in the “kingdom of the supply chain” as Auret Van Heerden once called it.

A second possible ending: imagine a chain of fairytale theme parks in major cities such as Los Angeles, Orlando, Paris, Tokyo and so on and who currently spend many millions of dollars on supply chain auditing for the soft toys and other items sold therein. Imagine that they decided that supply chain auditing alone was never going to end the eternal risk of being caught out should some wicked goblin decide to scrutinise the supply chain with the hope of finding something, anything, that might embarrass the magic kingdom. Given that the theme parks touch hundreds of millions of people at some point of their lives, then they have an unrivalled opportunity to bring visitors into some state of awareness about supply chain conditions. Imagine that in every theme park there is a “supply chain interactive museum”, full of wondrous information about the real world.

Over time, consumer awareness of the complexities of supply chain management would increase and they would begin to ask the right questions of their own buying behaviour, and begin to reward those brands trying to do the right thing. This would save millions if not billions of dollars currently spent on auditing across industries, and instead some of this money into consumer awareness. Auditing would still have an important role to play – but disclosure and reporting would be more meaningful and be much more accessible to the most important stakeholder for any retailer – the consumer (or as we used to call them, the customer).

Sorry for the wishful thinking, but it is that time of year. I hope we will all live happily ever after, or at least until 1 January.

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