Sustainability in a globalised world
I got home from a business trip last week to find a mystery parcel waiting for it. I ripped it open and six copies of my first book The Three Secrets of Green Business fell out – in Japanese! I was delighted in that strange bemused sort of way as I have no idea how good the translation is – or what to do with the copies. There has been talk of simple Chinese and Russian translations, but this is the first that has come to fruition.
And it got me thinking about sustainability in a globalised world. Here are a few environmental and ethical issues that cross national boundaries:
Environmental standards: if different nations have different environmental standards, it inevitably creates a ‘race to the bottom’ – the country with the lowest standards get the business. Over a decade ago Pakistan lost its ship breaking business after insisting on higher safety standards after a lethal explosion on a gas tanker. As sustainability is about going beyond compliance, there is a need for the responsible globalised business to set its own minimum standards to ensure that it is not contributing to the drive towards the lowest common denominator.
Transparency and Traceability: As commodities move around the world, it becomes increasingly difficult to determine their providence. APP’s paper may have been blacklisted by almost every major brand, but it still manages to sell into the market place, so someone is buying (a lot of) it. On the other hand, I have seen responsible UK manufacturer demonstrate how they can trace any tissue paper pack to the acre of forest it came from (the portion that isn’t from recycled sources).
Pay & Working Conditions: These are also subject to the ‘race to the bottom’ as the cheaper labour force tends to attract manufacturers. While there are some simple red line issues like child labour and slave labour, it becomes more difficult when different cultures have different approaches to pay and working conditions and the ‘going rate’ varies.
Tax: We have seen recently how some big businesses exploit the ease of moving money around the world to minimise their tax bill. Different tax regimes can lead to operations moving swiftly from one place to another at the sniff of a tax break, disrupting local communities and economies with short terms booms and busts.
As always a globalised supply chain can be seen as not a so much a problem but as an opportunity to do some work for good. Insisting on first world standards in third world countries is a sure fire way of raising the bar rather than lowering it. But companies can be more pro-active than that, actively investing in those countries to drive standards up. A great example is the low carbon lingerie factory Marks & Spencer developed with a supplier in Sri Lanka.
But the most important thing is to avoid getting into the kind of contorted mental mindset of those big tax dodgers where you end up defending the indefensible to justify the status quo. Being honest with yourself is the vital first step.
In the meantime, I’m just happy to be Big in Japan…