March 29, 2010

An Ecofashionista visits the Ethical Sourcing Forum. ~ Kelly Drennan

When “The Man”—big corporations—talk about going Green, is it a Black or White Situation?

Or Gray?

I am a small business owner, active within the social and environmental space.

I am a concerned citizen, parent and consumer.

And I’m proud to say that sustainability is at the core of both my personal and work life.

However, I am struggling with a few issues, and I know I’m not alone. So I hope that by putting them out there, I might actually find some answers…

In my line of work, I have few opportunities to work with large corporations on their CSR [Corporate Social Responsibility] initiatives, and so I recently attended the Ethical Sourcing Forum [ESF] in NYC in order to feel more connected, and to be clearer about the kinds of social and environmental transformations that are happening on a much larger scale.

Hosted by Intertek Sustainability Solutions, the ESF brings together CSR practitioners, NGOs [non-profits], and activists to tackle the many complicated challenges around human rights issues, supply chain transparency, and accountability. It was an intimate gathering of sustainability leaders having real conversations about real problems, and working together to come up with solutions.

But there I was in the same room with people from Wal-Mart, Disney, Coca Cola, Cadbury, IBM, Monsanto—you get the picture. I’ve had the opportunity to come together with these same companies at forums like LOHAS, but for totally different reasons. After hearing from these companies and learning about their supply chain challenges and human rights issues, I actually started to feel uncomfortable, and slightly squirmy in my seat. An already gray area for me was becoming even murkier. And for a gal who prefers things to be black or white (and often green), I was moving outside of my comfort zone.

I am much more comfortable supporting businesses that have either been sustainable from the get-go, or who were making changes to their business model well before the pressure was there to do so. These are companies who are driven by a triple bottom line (people, planet, profit). And they do this not because their competitors are doing it, or because someone pulled the curtain back and exposed their appalling behaviour to the world. They do it because it is the right thing to do.

Over the past couple of years, however, I have warmed up to the idea of big business joining the CSR movement. I want to believe that these mega corporations are driven by more than a single bottom line. And I think some companies are even doing incredible and exemplary work. The same cannot be said about everyone however. Particularly companies who have spent decades wreaking havoc on the environment and communities, both on their home soil and in developing countries.

These are the ones I have a harder time applauding for their seemingly contrived efforts.

After all, aren’t they the very same companies who created these problems in the first place?

A few times during the Forum I actually found myself zoning out. As much as I tried to focus on what was being said, the same bad movie would play over and over in my head. Images from Manufactured Landscapes, or Food, Inc. and The Corporation. I’d see pictures of sweatshops; and farmers spraying pesticides on cotton, wearing no protection.

I found it interesting (and confusing) that my brain would default to such graphic images. And the more it happened, the more I found myself becoming critical and skeptical of the very people whose stories I was so keen to hear.

So while my effort to find clarity around ethical sourcing hasn’t been completely lost, it has brought this whole new set of issues and questions to the surface: Can I look beyond the history of some of these corporations? Can I forgive and forget? Does cleaning up their own mess absolve them of past actions? Should I be more focused on the future, and applaud action that is being taken now to secure a safe and healthy planet for our children? And are these companies really doing enough? We all know the answer to that – no! But even the companies themselves admit that there is more they can be doing; and that this is just a first step.

So what are the next steps?

I want to see more being done in terms of environmental impacts. Let’s talk about deforestation and pollution, waste and use of toxic chemicals, destruction of entire ecosystems and communities. When is that conversation going to take place?

The Ethical Sourcing Forum was definitely an eye-opener for me, in more ways than I expected. I witnessed new collaborations forming to address problems and find solutions, supported by what seems to be a move toward shared accountability. And there is a great deal of auditing, measuring and reporting going on. All great things, right?

I remember reading that “You can’t have a sustainable world without a sustainable Wal-Mart”. Now I’m not saying Wal-Mart is the poster child for sustainability. Not in the least. But are they getting their 100,000 suppliers and gazillion customers thinking about issues like social and environmental impacts?

If yes, that’s is a good thing—a step in the right direction. If no…

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