Seven 'lessons' from Ethical Corporation's responsible supply chain conference last week

It looked a bit like this, only without boring PowerPoint slides
"There's no such thing as a clean supply chain". 

So said someone last week. 

Last week Ethical Corporation, a business which I set up in 2001, held an annual responsible supply conference which we've been hosting since 2002.

That phrase, "there's no such thing as a clean supply chain" was uttered fairly early on, and was referred to throughout the two days of the event, and with good reason. 

Back in 2002 the conference we held was all about certification and auditing, about NGOs haranguing a speaker from NestlĂ©, and Dole Foods, Sainsbury's and Chiquita all spending a lot of time discussing the management and sourcing policy aspects of better bananas. 

In many ways the agenda wasn't actually that different from last week's event, as this link back to the topics of that event indicates.

But there was much more honesty around about the non-existence of clean supply chains. I think using the phrase gave executives the confidence to share a little more than they might otherwise have done. 

Here's a few takeaways from last week's event, where I chaired a few sessions:

1) Senior executives are becoming much more comfortable talking about non financial risk in the supply chain. Not surprising given the last five years of supply chain scandals but good to see nonetheless. 

2) Many more procurement executives are attending conferences (rather than CSR and sustainability executives) and they are becoming more senior. That's a big change from five or eight years ago, and it makes the conferences so much more interesting. We've moved from policy to performance. 

3) There's a huge amount of mis-information out there about supply chain impacts even amongst executives paying to go to conferences. Companies have clearly not done anything like enough to tell their stories of supply chain success and dilemmas. This is a truism, but I found it useful to note once again. 

4) Businesses in different sectors still have more to learn from each other on supply chain impacts than you might think. I wondered what the MD of a chocolate company could teach telecoms executives but they were listening to every word. 

5) Companies are realising that the incentives and training of two kinds of middle managers matter most: those in corporate procurement and buying, and those in charge of all or some of factories, fields, farms within the supply base. Tackling these effectively of course, is another matter.

6) Running a conference completely without PowerPoint or visual aids worked better than we could have imagined. To be honest I was getting bored of our own events and the PowerPoint pitch was probably why. Switching to Q&A and interview format was far superior than looking at slides, and worse, PR videos. 

7) Experienced companies are becoming more confident in discussing their mistakes and the challenges. This is a slow process but I definitely got the sense more lessons learned were shared, perhaps given point six above.

So all very obvious stuff, and you might think not that much has changed if you looked at the link above, with all the issues we covered back in 2002. 

But much has changed, social media and technology generally has been the biggest factor, along with the realisation that just as sourcing is now truly global, so is risk as some of those risks have shown themselves to be very real in the last five to eight years. 

The audience for these kinds of events is very different from a decade ago, and that's to be celebrated. I can't see a time when executives managing risk in supply chains will ever manage themselves out of a job, as some heads of CSR used to to joke about. 


The online training course "Getting to Grips with CR Communications" begins at the end of November. Check out the modules here, and how to sign up, here.
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