We are just scratching the surface on sustainable procurement

Shaun McCarthy
3 November 2014

My working life is now in its fourth decade. I left school at 16 in 1973 and took an apprenticeship at Esso’s Fawley Refinery.

At the time the company was obsessed with safety and there were numerous procedures to observe, forms to fill in and audits to make sure everybody was doing what they should do to keep a very hazardous workplace as safe as possible.

By the 1980s I was a senior procurement professional with Shell and found myself involved in supplier QA/QC, a function I was later to head up as head of capital procurement in the 1990s. To do this we invented all sorts of forms to fill in, procedures to sign and audits to make sure we were getting the quality we expected from our suppliers. By the 90s I was heading up procurement development for BAA and working up e-commerce solutions that made all that procedural form filling stuff much more efficient.

Since then I have been involved in sustainability, which is a whole new ball game. While I feel I have made a significant contribution in the development of the world’s first standard for sustainable procurement practice, the world’s first independent assurance body for an Olympic Games and more recently the construction industry’s first collaborative programme to develop their supply chain’s sustainability competence, I feel I am still scratching the surface of this vast subject that encompasses global climate change, resource use, bribery, corruption, payment terms, labour standards, social deprivation, biodiversity and much, much more. We have annual migration of 350 million workers in China, state-endorsed abuse of worker’s rights in Bangladesh and even corporations in the “developed” world refusing to recognise basic rights such as free collective bargaining.

Saturday 18 October was World Anti-Slavery Day. There is every indication the UK Government is taking this issue seriously with the Modern Slavery Bill. The issue of worker’s rights in the supply chain alone is a massive one. My own experience in this area on the London 2012 Olympics was not a happy one but I learned a lot. Despite use of an online data exchange system and a comprehensive programme of audits, the Playfair Alliance put undercover workers into just two factories making merchandise for London 2012 and found breaches of all ten principles of the Ethical Trading Initiative Base Code. Their report Toying with Workers' Rights should have been a wake-up call to the profession to recognise that 1970s style procedures and audits are not enough. We need transparency of supply chains, education, engagement and partnership with workforces and their representatives. There has been a lot of good work done in this area in the retail sector and the Crossrail project in the construction sector has undertaken some bold work in collaboration with the supply chain to grasp this particular nettle. Much more thoughtful work is needed to define what we mean when we talk about ethical procurement, how we deliver it and how we measure it.

It was with despair therefore, that I read Five steps to tackle unethical supply chains recommending a 1970s audit approach for the whole supply chain which does very little other than make profit for the companies who provide the services, add cost to the supply chain and do little to address the issue. I am not saying audits are bad, but they are one tool in a myriad of devices and methods we need to tackle this huge problem.

☛ Shaun McCarthy is director of Action Sustainability

Darmstadt-Dieburg, Hessen (DE)
Competitive salary and great benefits. Relocation assistance available.
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