The only way is ethics
While the term responsible sourcing might not exactly be front and centre in the public domain, the concept most definitely is – if you don’t believe me, just ask anyone on your local high street whether they have heard about the horsemeat scandal, or the 2013 Rana Plaza garment-factory collapse in Bangladesh. From textile factories to abattoirs, from blood diamonds to illegal timber, responsible sourcing flashpoints are all-too familiar, and the list of potential procurement pitfalls seems almost endless. The problems appear high-profile, yet the solutions do not.
If we turn our attention to the building construction industry, then we too face some serious questions:
- Clients and designers: can you afford the reputational risk that a supply-chain exposé might have on one of your projects?
- Contractors and manufacturers: with environmental and social criteria now featuring heavily on pre-qualification questionnaires, is your business up to speed?
- Scheme operators: can you be confident your assessment criteria are up to date and comparable with equivalent schemes operated in other sectors?
So, where do you start with ethical specification?
Well, in one sense, the good thing about responsible sourcing being a global, cross-sectorial concern is that there are already some big, international players bringing influence to bear and helping business and industry address the issues.
Agreeing frameworks and developing programmes is most definitely a team game. The WBCSD, the Ethical Trading Initiative and International Council on Mining and Metals are now very active in this space in providing frameworks for responsible sourcing of key commodities such as stone, metals, and concrete. Others such as Sedex (the Supplier Ethical Data Exchange) have created enormous impact across a wide range of industries by helping suppliers and procurers to track key information. Closer to home, the (free to join) Supply Chain Sustainability School is an excellent example of the UK construction industry (including infrastructure) collaborating to build and speed up engagement on the issue, which is bigger than any one contractor, or procurement director.
While there are clearly multiple players involved, this is not a game without rules. Standards exist such as the widely-used BES6001 Framework standard for responsible sourcing for construction products, developed by BRE in 2009 and now in its third version. The fact that over 92 per cent of UK concrete can be purchased with a BES6001 certificate demonstrates the exceptional levels of buy-in from product manufacturers, to what is essentially a voluntary standard – clearly the C-suite is not going to wait for legislation – the industry has given itself a mandate to act.
The UK Contractors Group, which is responsible for buying millions of pounds worth of materials every day, says its members give preference to materials with responsible sourcing certificates, and major projects such as Crossrail are also pushing the boundaries, by setting, testing and trialling new ethical audit protocols, so it can only be a matter of time until we see broader implementation.
Responsible sourcing goes beyond one product, beyond niche, beyond compliance, beyond borders and most certainly beyond building. The transparency demands associated with worldwide data access, fuelled by growth in mobile and digital technologies, mean the issue will only run broader and deeper. It is not going away. Ignorance is therefore no defence. Where is the sense in the construction industry waiting for scandal to strike, before it acts? Why invite the reputational horrors experienced by retail brands?
The ethical imperatives and the commercial drivers are in sync: responsible sourcing is simply good business sense.
Jacqueline Glass is Professor of Architecture and Sustainable Construction at Loughborough University.
For more information on CIRIA’s work on responsible sourcing and ethical specification click here.