The Minneapolis Star Tribune published an article recently, titled Bar Association Warns Corporations: Clean up supply chains.  The author says that the president of the American Bar Association will be sending a letter to the CEOs of all the Fortune 500 companies. He goes on to say that the letter will ask the CEOs to commit to ending human-rights abuses in their supply chains.

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Chris Johnson, who heads the American Bar Association’s (ABA) business section’s supply-chain initiative makes some provocative statements in the article:

  • “Regulation is increasing. Litigation is increasing. It’s astounding to me that companies don’t get out ahead of this. It’s a time bomb.”
  • “Companies remain reactive and not pre-emptive in handling possible human-rights abuses in their supply chains.”
  • “Why would you want to wait to have your products found in the rubble along with 1,100 bodies of dead workers?”

rana-plaza-collapse-3That last statement was about the April 2013 collapse of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh. More than 1100 clothing workers died when the multistory factory building collapsed. Investigators found several European and U.S. companies’ products in the wreckage.

This was a tragedy for the workers, their families, and their communities. It is an ongoing embarrassment to the purchasing profession. Some of the companies involved had no idea their product was being produced in a manifestly unsafe building.

I believe it’s also a wakeup call. There are signs that the clothing industry is banding together to change their purchasing practices on an industry-wide basis to improve their supplier selection techniques.

The article focuses on human rights violations going on in company supply chains. Those violations can involve coerced labor of adults and children, any kind of labor by children, safety issues, wage and hour violations and a host of other issues. Here are two issues many of you are facing now:

  • Is your company a retailer or manufacturer? Do you sell more than $100 million per year? Do you do business in California? If so, is your company making a public statement on its web site about what it is doing to remove coerced labor from its supply chain? If it isn’t, it’s violating California law.
  • Do you work for a publicly held US company? Do your company report to the SEC about the origin of any tin, tungsten, tantalum or gold in the products you sell? It needs to or it’s in violation of Federal law. If you have any electronics in your products, you have one or more of those metals. That’s the obvious example. Here’s a list of 22 other products that contain the metals.

However, a good Supply Chain Social Responsibility (SCSR) program needs to go beyond just following the law. I was surprised to find that U.S. law allows children as young as 12 to work on farms. Does your company have a cafeteria or food vending machines? If so, you probably have 12 year olds working in your supply chain. And it’s legal. It’s just not ethical.

Social Responsibility goes beyond labor issues. It includes prevention of giving and receiving bribes. It includes treatment of animals. It includes preserving the environment. The last topic applies to every organization that buys paper, for example. That’s just about everyone. Does your paper supplier use sustainable forestry techniques?

Want to learn more about what’s involved and how to develop and execute an SCSR program? Sign up for Next Level Purchasing’s Exemplary Supply Chain Social Responsibility online course. In eight training hours, on your own schedule, you will get a thorough and practical understanding of the issues and the solutions. To build on Chris Johnson’s statements (above), it’s much better to be preemptive when there’s a threat of time bombs.

Dick Locke, SPSM, SPSM2, SPSM3

Dick Locke is the founder and President of Global Supply Training company. In addition, Mr. Locke spent fifteen years in Hewlett-Packard’s Corporate Procurement group. He is also the author of the Next Level Purchasing Association course "Executing a Global Sourcing Strategy".

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