We should be ethical advisors and change makers

posted by Conception Ribaud
1 December 2017

Focus on the people, explain the obligations in the contract and help suppliers to think beyond simply complying with responsible working standards, says Conception Ribaud

During my first procurement specialisation class, my teacher said ‘dinosaur’ was the nickname given to any procurement professional that still believed our role was to control purchase requisitions and negotiate prices. We have all met a dinosaur at least once in our career. Please do not feel offended if you identify as one, it is not too late to change.

As procurement professionals we can have an effect on society when defining CSR targets for our supply chain. I have always believed this, but when my father was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2013 it really hit home. While my father had never smoked, he worked in the construction industry his entire career, and had been exposed to asbestos in the 1960s and 80s.

Back then corporate social responsibility was not on the agenda. Asbestos was considered a cheap isolation material. Industry regulations around asbestos were first introduced in 1931, but its link to cancer was only recognised in 1987. In 1999, a century after it had first been studied, asbestos was banned in the UK. Yet in 2015, 2m tonnes of asbestos was mined worldwide.

In the railway industry, where I work, asbestos has long been used. At the same time as my father’s illness, I managed the construction and facilities management procurement category. Ironically, the last contract I finalised before my father passed away was for asbestos consultancy. Until now, I have not shared my story with colleagues, omitting how important and personal corporate responsibility is for me.

So, how does this relate to procurement? We knew for a century that asbestos was dangerous, but we continued to use it, valuing profit over health, putting our savings and bonus over our morals, waiting for regulations to come into force before taking action.

I was asked during my interview for the CIPS Supply Management award if I only followed what my company drives in terms of social responsibility or if I have my own views. The honest answer: my value system goes beyond. I believe we can always do more.

Today’s procurement focus remains on category management, supplier relationship ownership and responsible procurement – essentially on becoming a strategic function.

But what if tomorrow were about not only being strategic but also an ethical advisor in all outsourcing decisions, supporting the business to develop in a sustainable manner? What if we were recognised as being the wise counsellor, a change maker, not just a support function? We have all the knowledge required: market insight, connections to our board, long-term strategic plans, budget forecasts and ownership of the supply chain.

Large organisations will already have teams dedicated to CSR, with documentation ready to prove how ethical they are as a business, while SMEs are lost, attempting to justify how they reach our minimum standards. But this does not make suppliers ethical; it makes them compliant.

During a recent supplier event, we held workshops about what matters for our organisation, explaining how our suppliers impact the business. Suppliers fed back that they finally understood the reasons for certain obligations in their contracts and how they related to our CSR commitments.

What we do and the way we do it is often only obvious to us in procurement. Do we know why we have a process in place? Are we able to clarify the rules we apply? Companies are made of people, not process. We have to show a more human face and stop hiding behind procedures. It is time to talk, to raise awareness about human rights, labour conditions and environmental impact. It is time to help suppliers who struggle to bring these topics to their boards because the company focus remains on financial stability.

The next generation of procurement professionals needs empathy, ethical ethos and passion for sustainability and corporate responsibility. If we want to move mountains, we need to believe in what we do. And if you tell yourself that you do not have the time to deal with sustainability, remember that tomorrow may be too late.

Considering our feelings when making decisions will not ruin our reputation. It gives heart and meaning to what we do.

Conception Ribaud is head of procurement at MTR Crossrail. She is the CIPS Supply Management Young Procurement and Supply Professional of the Year 2017.

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