Let’s talk responsible procurement

14 September 2010
At the risk of sounding like a Daily Mail cliché of a Guardian reader, I thought I would  share with you a debate I had with some friends about buying local produce. Are we better off buying local or buying from where the produce is available?  The positions started fairly simply – carbon footprint, freshness of food, supporting your local farmers. Then scenarios got complicated. Suppose the carbon footprint is less but the food is fresher because of the processes used; maybe the overseas producer employs people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to earn a living. Roses grown in Kenya and flown to the UK (from a farm employing 5,000 people who would find it difficult to find work otherwise) are six times more ecologically friendly than those grown in the Netherlands. This is possible because in Kenya only sunlight and geothermal energy are used and the only carbon footprint consists of the flight, whereas the intensive farming in the Netherlands is energy hungry. There are different measures of the “right thing to do”. This is difficult enough when you’re thinking about vegetables but becomes a lot more complicated when you think about which supplier your organisation should deal with. Done correctly, responsible procurement summarises how an organisation will ensure their ethical standards are integrated in their procurement activities worldwide.  Only those suppliers that embrace those standards, or at the very least have a plan on how to reach them, can continue to supply that organisation. It is a key component of how we manage risk in our supply chain. No organisation wants to be associated with faulty products that can harm consumers, child labour or unsafe working conditions, or a carbon footprint that is hastening the end of every polar bear. Irresponsible procurement is not something most CPOs want to be associated with. Indeed, most procurement professionals I meet want to work within an organisation that shares their values. The stands we take can attract and repel talent and customers in equal measure. While discussions we have internally are important, the most valuable dialogues we have are with our suppliers. The conversation can start off a little one-sided in that we will have asked them to perform some form of self assessment. In it we will have laid out the details of our code of practice and asked the supplier to rate how closely they comply with that code. Their understanding of what has been asked and the integrity with which they respond can speak volumes by itself. Their response is the start of the dialogue. This is the opportunity to talk to them about what they do, why they have the working practices that they do, what their objectives are and where they see their future. It can be difficult to have these conversations during a negotiation process, but done outside of it as part of the responsible procurement process the truth can be easier to get at. It’s not to say that you won’t be lied to, but you stand a greater chance of finding those that you believe you can work with to achieve the standards you desire. Persistence and clarity of purpose are crucial to success.  We should all care that our suppliers uphold our values and it is our responsibility to ensure we can persuade our suppliers that it matters to them as well.
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