The collapse of the building with garment factories that killed more than 400 people in Bangladesh last week brings a hideous sense of déjà vu. We've seen this before, and we know that it will happen again. The rich billion of us who live lives of material luxury unimaginable to the vast majority of the world — and beyond the dreams of our own recent forebears — pause momentarily from our addictive consumption; we frown at the traumatic images, shrug, and move on. We know that we are somehow complicit in the moral chain that links our cheap clothes with collapsing factories, but we feel powerless to respond. So here are three radical suggestions for transforming the field of supply chain ethics. They aren't going to be adopted anytime soon. But maybe they will help advance the debate a notch.
Require the Public Disclosure of Provenance Data
All of it. We already have complex systems for ensuring that some products get marked with country of origin; some firms are taking voluntary steps to reveal where stuff comes from in detail and down to the micro-level of batch, plant, and date. In my 2010 HBR piece, I reviewed some of the ways in which firms are doing this, and the story continues. New technologies, industry standards, and approaches to tagging and labeling are enhancing the ability of consumers to trace the origin of goods.
But the revolution is incremental and mostly voluntary. The time has come for something more drastic, and there are good arguments for making it mandatory.
Will this place a terrible burden on business? No. Because the cost of not knowing product provenance is huge when things go wrong. In the last year, Europe's processed food industry has been overwhelmed with a crisis caused by substantial use of horse meat passed off as beef. In telecommunications and information technology, experts are waking up to the need for full "chains of custody" for components because of the threat of malicious "hardware Trojan horses." And keeping your supply chain truly secret — in the age of webcams and Wikileaks — is impossible in any case. When a factory collapses, we should know exactly what was made there. Was your shirt? You should know.
Focus on Labor Rights
Campaigners, enlightened firms, and savvy politicians should focus all their energy on one — and only one — area of supply-chain ethics: freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining. The idea that committees in Geneva and Washington can sit down to specify appropriate details of working conditions, payment, and health and safety practices for workers thousands of miles away is as impractical as it is dangerous. Impractical, because we know that the corresponding mechanisms of audit and scrutiny are inefficient and corrupt as hell. Dangerous, because it institutionalizes the political disempowerment of the very people the international standards are meant to protect.
The right people to make the judgments and trade-offs about working conditions and safety are the workers themselves — not big Western companies, NGOs, and well-meaning but under-informed consumers. In Europe and the U.S., just about every substantial step forward in workplace safety and employment rights was wrested from unwilling employers by organized labor. Companies that source from the developing world need to throw their influence and weight towards the empowerment of the workers rather than tinkering with meaningless audit forms.
Abandon Wishful Thinking about Labels
This means eschewing simplistic labels ("ethical," "green") that ascribe products with a magical quality that absolves us from culpability. The truth is that the world is complicated, and supply chains are tangled and dynamic. Labels are a good way of giving consumers partial information, and maybe selection between alternative products might do some good: Fair Trade and similar initiatives have had some unequivocal successes. But let us never delude ourselves that they capture the whole story or that they do not often bring serious unintended downsides. "Ethical consumption" might be a great way to raise awareness and maybe leads some to serious engagement in the real economics and politics of global supply chains. But if it serves to close our minds in soporific smugness, it is a very bad thing indeed.
So how do these ideas get from being an idealistic manifesto to something that works? That will take knowledge, curiosity, and old-fashioned politics. It means being skeptical about those who want to mollify and obfuscate. We must ask hard questions about how our lives are connected to those who work thousands of miles away. Our neighbors who died in the rubble deserve nothing less.