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18 November 2013

Is your supply chain a ticking time bomb?

timebombI own a 118 year old house. When people say "they don't build them like that anymore", my reaction is usually "thank, goodness" as the Victorian builders didn't bother themselves with trivialities like foundations, joists always meeting walls or, indeed, right angles. Add in the ravages of age and some questionable 'improvements' over the decades, and the place is like Pandora's Box - what other problems will emerge if you look too hard? When we did major refurbishments 10 years ago, we decided to grasp the nettle and do everything properly and, boy did we find problems - woodworm, dry rot, damp - and our bath was being supported by just half an inch of floor joist. Doing it properly was disruptive, expensive, but worth every penny.

I always think of my house when I meet people reluctant to deal with sustainability issues in their supply chain. It's almost a fear of shining a light into the dark corners because you mightn't like what you find. So most seem to sit tight and hope the problems don't bubble up and burst in their faces.

Apple tried to do this when Greenpeace targeted them for toxic waste problems in the supply chain back in 2006. Steve Jobs first dismissed the issues but performed an extremely rare u-turn once the issue threatened the company's hip image and produced an impressive environmental strategy. Then the Foxconn working conditions issue exploded and Apple was back in the mire again. As a result, the company has upped its supplier audits by a factor of 10 and publishes them online. It has also announced the re-shoring of some manufacturing to the States. The lesson has been learnt - the hard way.

Here are two quotes from Tom Smith of Sedex, taken from my latest book, Building A Sustainable Supply Chain:

It’s tempting just to scratch the surface, but you’ve got to go all the way down – it’s a dirty, nasty, difficult business, but that’s the only way of doing it properly.

As you go down, the risks are greater, you have less visibility is less and you have less influence. But how can you say you have a good quality, efficient supply chain when you don’t know where your goods are from?

Unfortunately too many still think that they can sit tight and hope any timebombs in the supply chain will never go off. But it's time to get the sniffer dogs out, shine a torch into those dark corners and defuse problems before they blow up in your face. Just ask Apple.


BASS C loresBuilding A Sustainable Supply Chain is available from DoSustainability. Use the code BSS15 to obtain a discount before 6 December 2013. You can read an extract here and join in our free webinar on 27 November 2013 to celebrate the book's publication.


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22 February 2012

Use your buying power for good!

I was recently asked to comment on O2's sustainability programme for - it hasn't appeared yet, so maybe I didn't say anything newsworthy enough you can read it here. What I did say said was O2 had hit two of the three big sustainability buttons bang on - internal performance and providing low carbon services to their customer base. But on the third, the supply chain, I felt they were saying all the right words, but not making the same big, concrete, ambitious commitments. This is a big opportunity missed - there are a raft of sustainability issues in their supply chain from carbon emissions to conflict minerals (as O2 acknowledges to its credit).

The buying power of the big brands is immense. If they say "jump", their suppliers say "how high?". You can see this in the food and fast-moving consumer goods and food sectors where the much maligned big shed supermarkets are now driving sustainability through their suppliers. Hands up who wants to get de-listed by WalMart or Tesco?

And new Apple boss Tim Cook is currently lancing the boil of working conditions in Chinese manufacturers. Apple was targeted by campaigners as it was the sexiest brand with most to lose, despite being just one of a plethora of brands to use such companies. But with Apple's brand profile comes plenty of buying power - if Cook asks, he will probably get. If the other brands put their head above the parapet and ask for the same thing, the suppliers will have no alternative but to comply.

For smaller companies, with less oomph in their wallet, reforming suppliers is not really an option - but you usually have a choice with which you can add your weight to the big picture move to greener supply chains.

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21 March 2011

Don't believe the hype!

It was the big fuss in the Corporate Social Responsibility field last year. Your flashy iPad had the blood of Chinese workers on it. The factory where they were made was a suicide hotspot because of the terrible working conditions and you should feel guilty, Apple should feel guilty, the whole world should hang its collective head in remorse. I know people who chose not to buy Apple as a result.

At the time, I felt that Apple were hard done by as the company concerned, Foxconn, produced goods for many other household names, including Sony, Dell and Motorola. Now it appears, according to Wired magazine, the whole scandal was a non-event. Yes, sadly, 17 workers took their own lives, but out of a workforce of 1 million. That puts the Foxconn suicide rate lower than the average for all of China, and four times less than that of US college students. Working conditions at Foxconn still seem severe by Western standards, but if you work there, you're at a lower risk of killing yourself than your peers. Apple does appear to have been the victim of journos hungry for a negative story about the iPad.

Here's some things we can learn from the story:

  • The old political/journalism trope "never let the facts get in the way of a good story" still applies;
  • Bad news travels much, much quicker than good news (and nobody's interested in debunking a 'good story');
  • Never believe the scandals that rip across Twitter, blogs or the media - check the facts;
  • Tall poppies like Apple are always at risk of negative stories, fair or foul.
  • Damage limitation is just that.

The only way to balance this kind of lazy journalism/bloggareah is to strive for the highest standards, have the facts ready to defend the brand and have a steady stream of positive CSR news hitting the ether. In the meantime, I can use my Apple gear with renewed smugness.

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2 June 2010

Tall Poppy Syndrome

What do Apple and BP have in common? Both are taking hits for something that's happened in their supply chain - BP for the gulf oil spill disaster, Apple for a series of suicides at a key supplier.

The responsibility in BP's case is pretty straightforward. The company selected the location of the drilling, appointed the contractors and signed the cheque. They should be offering the world a big mea culpa, but instead they appear to be trying to play down the seriousness of the spill when there are allegations that despite the technical difficulty of drilling at those water depths, a cheaper drill casing was used and safety warnings were ignored. This is the antithesis of corporate responsibility. Responsibility means that you do your utmost to do things right, and, if and when they go wrong, you hold your hands up.

In Apple's case, it really is a case of tall poppy syndrome. Many other big electronics names including Sony, Dell and Motorola use Foxconn - the biggest contract electronics manufacturer in the word - but they're not Apple and they haven't launched the world's most desirable electronic gizmo in recent weeks. So Apple gets it in the neck while the others keep their heads down. In truth, the responsibility to improve working conditions at Foxconn lies with all these manufacturers and their combined buying power should be sufficient to make whatever demands they please.

Apple have been hit by this before - when Greenpeace attacked them for their general environmental performance, so they should know what's coming. The same thing goes for other big brands - Nike, Coca Cola et al - if you stand out above the crowd, then the media, NGOs and public will hold you responsible for the sins of the multitude. The only sensible response is to use attacks and potential attacks as a spur and redouble efforts to clean up your supply chains, eradicating social and environmental issues before they hit the headlines. The kind of complacency that we have seen in BP will be fatal for any business trying to be green.

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28 September 2009

Green Apples not just a fad

More than two years ago I blogged about Apple Computer's run in with Greenpeace and I continue to use it as a case study of the risks of being targeted by a pressure group. Well Apple have released a new site which makes the environmental impact of their products as transparent as possible.

As someone who is typing this on his sixth Mac in 20 years, I really chuffed that such a high profile company has realised that in the 21st century, hip = green and vice versa. Interesting too that my 2008 model Powerbook Pro has 60% of the carbon emissions in use as my old laptop.

This energy efficiency has wider importance too as the world becomes increasingly digitised. There is an interesting article in the latest edition of The ENDS Report on the carbon footprint of data centres. Incredibly the typical server only uses 10-20% of its capacity. A technique called 'virtualisation' is now being used to increase this to 50-70% - a massive improvement.

There are many benefits of the shift to a digital world - removing the information (photos, music, movies) from the medium (film, paper, CDs, DVDs plus associated packaging and distribution) - and it is great to see that the carbon footprint of each unit of digital activity is dropping so rapidly so we don't simply move the problem around.

Update 9/10/09
Apple have announced, like Nike and several other large players, that they are resigning from the US Chamber of Commerce in protest at the latter's stance on Obama's climate change bill. Almost literally walking the talk.

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9 June 2007

A Greener Apple

I'm writing this on a three and a half year old Mac PowerBook. Us Mac users are notoriously sanctimonious and, often, downright snooty when it comes to our IT, so it came as a bit of a shock when Greenpeace launched a campaign against Apple for coming bottom in their scorecard of electronics companies for the second year running (see graphic).

Apple's brilliant, but notoriously brittle, CEO Steve Jobs reacted dismissively to the campaign at first, but something must have sunk in as he has now launched an impassioned defence of Apple's record, trailed on the front page of their website last month. The most significant part is a pledge to phase out some of the more controversial chemicals in its product range, such as Brominated Fire Retardants (BFRs) and Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC), by 2008 - other computer manufactures have pledged to phase them out by 2009.

So I can go back to being smug about my Mac...

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