We are the Product of our Environment

Take a peek into your closet. Among your favourite outfits and outcasts, you are bound to find at least one item made in Bangladesh. Given that the garment industry is a $20 billion business there, odds are high. Odds are also high that someone made that garment in poor conditions for a paltry wage.

What’s more, global supply lines are stretched and the rule of law in many developing countries where that $19 pair of shorts were made is weak.

But that doesn’t make turning a blind eye or making half-hearted attempts at monitoring an appropriate response.

This exploitation came into sharp focus with the tragic and fatal collapse of a textile manufacturing building in Bangladesh at the end of April. More than 750 people (and counting) died in the worst industrial accident in South Asia since the Bhopal disaster in 1984, and the worst ever in the garment industry.

Supply lines are stretched and the rule of law in many developing countries where that $19 pair of shorts were made is weak

But we can’t just blame the 30 global brands that had garments manufactured there.

The Theatre of the Absurd

Look around you. We are all actors in the theatre of consumerism. Our insatiable appetite for consumer goods coupled with companies’ almost total focus on cost and profit is fueling a nasty race to the bottom.

According to George Hodge, an associate professor at the College of Textiles at North Carolina State University, “For each season, [retailers] are looking at who can make it now, and who offers the best value.” In other words, “We want it now and at the cheapest price possible.” This doesn’t leave much time for scrutiny nor funds for monitoring factory buildings and the people who work there.

Leaders are recognising that their reputations and their bottom lines are influenced by factors beyond the boundaries of their organisations.

However, with today’s world of instant communications, globalised business can’t help but look in the mirror. Whether its 24/7 IT support from a call centre in Bangalore, the beans in your morning cup of coffee or the comfy chair you like to drink it in, successful enterprises are taking the concepts of responsibility, stewardship and transparency seriously.

They know that business must nurture the natural environment and honor and respect the communities on which they depend for their employees, suppliers and customers. In fact, the smart ones are cultivating value, working hard to generate goodwill, and respecting their social license to operate. At Junxion, we call them TrustBrandsTM.

So when it comes to products and services, how are enterprising TrustBrandsTM earning their stripes? By understanding and addressing the environmental and social impacts of their products in such areas as:

  • Energy efficiency
  • Pollution prevention
  • Waste minimisation
  • Product stewardship
  • Community investment
  • Employee development, and
  • Support for local NGOs

And they are doing it by considering:

  • The nature of the product or service they deliver
  • Their sourcing practices
  • The end-of-life and disposal realities of your purchase

It Starts at the Beginning

Can a casino be socially responsible? Not really—it’s an addictive activity with major social costs. Cigarettes? No, they kill people. Plastic? Not if it comes from fossil fuels instead of plant-based materials like the innovators at Solegear.

Good companies know that the very nature of their product or service matters. Indeed, progressive manufacturing companies are going beyond “putting lipstick on a pig” by examining the whole lifecycle of their products.

One framework designed to support companies in creating products that are “more good” rather than simply “less bad” is Cradle to Cradle®, a concept developed by William McDonough and Dr. Michael Braungart.

Cradle to Cradle requires a shift in thinking about how a product is designed, what’s in it, and where it goes after use. It leads to the creation of products that redefine quality, beauty, and innovation.

As their Cradle to Cradle (or C2C) website indicates, “Cradle to Cradle requires a shift in thinking about how a product is designed, what’s in it, and where it goes after use. It leads to the creation of products that redefine quality, beauty, and innovation.” In short, it ensures companies are making safe and healthy products for our world.

C2C’s guiding principles encourage commitment to new paradigms, good growth instead of economic growth, continuous innovation and perfection, understanding for learning, and intergenerational responsibility. In practice, this means improving products in five areas: renewable energy, clean water, material health, social responsibility and material reutilisation.

The five C2C guiding principles encourage commitment to new paradigms, good growth instead of economic growth, continuous innovation and perfection, understanding for learning, and intergenerational responsibility.

But in its broadest sense, C2C is not limited to industrial design and manufacturing; it can be applied to many aspects of human civilisation such as urban environments, buildings, economics and social systems.

And if it sounds lofty or unachievable, then take a look at the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute registry of dozens of approved C2C products. This resource covers six categories from building materials to personal care products. They look good, perform well and meet C2C’s principles.

One social enterprise trying to embody these principles is The Ethical Computer Company, based near Stoke, UK. TECC refurbishes and recycles computer equipment that has stopped being used or is damaged.

For the last 12 years it has sold computers at low-cost while delivering a zero material-resource-waste and a zero human-resource-waste business model. It employs local people who face difficulties in getting employment because of a culture of unemployment, physical disabilities or a criminal record. And they never ship electronic waste to developing countries where it poisons people and local ecosytems.

A Supply Chain is Only as Strong as the Weakest Link

Another way of recognising that reputations—and bottom lines—are influenced by external factors is to implement an ethical sourcing policy. That’s why many Fortune 500 companies as well as small and medium-sized enterprises have put these policies in place.

In practice, this means:

  • Looking critically at business processes of supply, outsourcing and purchase management
  • Developing supply chain strategies and apply codes of conduct in the areas with the most impact
  • Measuring, monitoring and verifying performance indicators
  • Endorsing and adopting processes and performance standards, and sharing them publicly
  • Building awareness and support with employees, suppliers and customers and,
  • Exiting supplier relationships that don’t show improvements

William Bissell, Managing Director at Fabindia, a retailer of natural, craft-based, contemporary, and affordable products, stresses the importance of a robust and responsive supply chain. “The approach that a company takes to its supply chain is pivotal—we chose to look upon our supply chain as partners and to invite them to participate in the opportunities that retail presents.”

That’s why Fabindia links over 80,000 craft-based rural producers to modern urban markets, thereby creating a base for skilled, sustainable rural employment, and preserving India’s traditional handicrafts in the process. The company also promotes inclusive capitalism, through its unique COC (community owned companies) model. That model consists of companies, which act as value adding intermediaries, between rural producers and Fabindia. In fact, craftpersons own a minimum 26% shareholding of the COCs.

And why not? Who said attractive products, good prices and social impact are mutually-exclusive?

From Here to Eternity

While C2C and sourcing are a critical part of being a successful enterprise today, product stewardship that includes manufacturers, retailers, consumers and recyclers is equally important. Product stewardship further extends this responsibility to everyone involved in the life-cycle of the product. This includes not only the manufacturers, but also the retailers, consumers and recyclers as well.

As part of its Plan A sustainability strategy, Marks and Spencer (M&S), the UK-based retailer has taken the end-of-life concept to heart with its “shwopping” program. They encourage customers to bring their old clothes back to any M&S. They then give them to Oxfam to sell online, in their stores or in international markets where there’s demand. Depending on the quality, what doesn’t sell is recycled into new fabric, loft insulation or car seat filling

In the past four years, M&S has collected a jaw-dropping 11 million garments and is on track to meet a goal of more than 20 million items by 2015. If that wasn’t impressive enough, the program has generated $13 million for charity organisations. Win-win at its finest.

There’s no question that our global community is facing enormous challenges of sustainability—both social and environmental. As the Bangladesh tragedy reminds us, there is still much work to be done. Fortunately, social enterprises progressive TrustBrandsTM are forging a path to a new way of doing business.

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