At ECO-Buy we do a lot of supply chain sustainability assessments for companies.
I get involved advising on relevant sustainability standards that the companies could refer to in procurement to help avoid risks in their supply chain.
What I am finding is that the major product sustainability certifications don’t cover some of the key risks that buyers want to eliminate from their supply chain.
Some of the risks that come up include human rights, labour standards, worker safety, corruption and bribery.
No one wants to be associated with product and services that have risks in these areas. Being associated with negative social impacts can have a significant impact on a company’s reputation.
But it’s been nearly 15 years since Nike’s connection with sweatshop labour became a mainstream issue, yet most sustainability certifications are silent on the issue.
Is it simply too difficult to develop a standard around product related social issues?
Say you are looking to buy IT equipment for example - computers, monitors and printers. You would normally look at EPEAT. It’s a fairly comprehensive and widely accepted sustainability standard that covers energy use, design for recycling, toxic substances etc. Alongside Energystar, EPEAT has become the dominant sustainability standard for IT equipment internationally.
But it is silent on human rights, labour standards, conflict minerals etc. And these are the topical issues right now.
Where does this leave us?
Firstly it leaves the door open to certifications that do include the ‘emerging’ social and environmental issues.
Secondly it means buyers have to refer to social certifications to fill the gap. But hang on there aren’t any that fill the gap. Find me a certification for fair labour in the IT industry.
Thirdly it means that buyers have to do their own research - or engage supply chain specialists to do this- like ECO-Buy.
But I suppose the main problem is that while EPEAT is a standard - developed with broad agreement from a range of industry experts, and having open and transparent criteria for assessing environmental performance, the assessment of broader risks seems to fall outside standards. There is no label on IT equipment that says ‘this was made with fair labour’ or is ‘conflict mineral free’.
We are often left looking at company voluntary disclosures, codes of conduct, and high level initiatives such as the Global Compact etc. Difficult, time consuming and potentially risky for the buyer. This is how we were before certifications on environmental performance came in….
20 years ago!