It was a really early start (another one!) – heading to the station for a 6am train. Thankfully, I love the morning quiet, particularly with the autumn leaves that have started to stretch across the pavements like a patchy carpet.

But I wasn’t up to admire nature. Today, I was chairing the WISSE meeting at the Debenhams headquarters in London, having been kindly asked by Acre who run these events. Frances Goodwin, the ethical trading manager from Tesco was sharing her insights. It was my task to set the scene and manage the participation. And was I looking forward to it.

Preparing for the session, it was not only a question of providing a fitting introduction for Frances (passionate and professional creative visionary with a keen commercial awareness and strong communicator), it was also about sitting back and reflecting on the topic for the day. What does a sustainable supply chain mean? Is it an objective, an end, or a journey? Why is this discussion so relevant today? 

Breadth of challenges

My own perspective, and I feel this opinion is shared by numerous papers and extensive research, that we are all working in a global environment that is demanding more from companies in terms of transparency and responsible behaviour. The effects of the Rana Plaza disaster simply highlighted the breadth of challenges facing companies in managing their supply chains – health and safety, auditing issues, child labour, just to name a few concrete examples. It is not just the context of reacting to disasters that is forcing companies to have to think about their response to these matters; it is also the changing regulatory environment. We, in the UK are waiting to see whether the government will indeed add something on supply chains to the Draft Modern Slavery Bill (the cynic in me thinks that a Transparency in Supply Chain amendment will be too controversial before a major election; or if the government feels something should be included we will see yet more consultation, with very little in the way of concrete drafting on enforcement,  expectations, and other practical aspects).

There is already a mandatory requirement for listed companies to report on human rights under the UK Companies Act 2006. Other companies are not exempt from having to consider how environmental and social issues affect their financial performance in their strategic report. The EU has passed a Directive on non-financial reporting with the prospect that the scope will be extended in 2016 to cover large companies.  And we can’t lose sight of the fact that increasingly c-class actions cases are being brought by NGOs or civil groups against companies on the impact of their operations.

It would be remiss not to mention the UN Guiding Principles on business and human rights as a voluntary framework that sets the benchmark for ALL companies to address their human rights impacts. Although they lack an enforcement mechanism, they are now being referred to in case law and have been incorporated into the OECD guidelines for multinationals.

In this context, Frances set about speaking of her experience of working on ethical issues across both the supplier and the retail sector. Her journey took us from Zimbabwe, to India, to China, and back home (where she remains ‘grounded’ for a while juggling work and home commitments). There was a real honesty to her account and her experience was invaluable – as was evidenced by the vote of thanks and the intense discussion that followed her presentation.

I was scribbling notes as were many others and questions had to be regulated by a show of hands – sometimes interrupting the flow of the morning but necessary to give everyone a chance to participate. Around the table were women with senior positions in sustainability/CSR across various sectors. Each one at a different stage in developing or influencing the sustainability journey of their organisations. There were observations around the inadequacy of auditing as a means to an end, the lack of thought leadership across many companies in addressing the issues at hand, the exasperation felt with how quickly the law is changing in this area. Again, a real sense of honesty.

Stop, collaborate and listen

There were so many anecdotes to Frances’ presentation, but she summed up her thoughts on how to develop a sustainable supply chain into the following: –

– Understand your suppliers

– Collaborate and listen

– Be clear: keep things simple

– Build trust and make  contact

– Deal with issues

– Collaborate more

She was indeed a passionate and professional, creative visionary with a keen commercial awareness and strong communicator – as stated in her LinkedIN profile.

One of the really interesting points that arose from the questions (there were many but this one resonated with my environmental law background) was the interplay between environment and human rights issues. I think we need to discuss this more. That the ethical/ human rights debate focused on what the world has learnt or not learnt from environmental issues.  How to address the continuing silos that still arise in companies when considering the impacts of both these issues.

We ran out of time for questions. Some stayed and networked afterwards. Sitting on the train, heading back to my office, and I wondered what the answers to these issues would look like in five years time.

One thing is for sure, I look forward to being more involved in future events picking up the challenges on this key issue which is set to grow on bard agendas for companies.

Colleen Theron is a tri-qualified solicitor in England and Wales, Scotland and South Africa. Since 1996 she has advised on environmental issues in complex property and corportate transactions and recently founded sustainability consultancy CLT envirolaw.

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