Jeremy Prepscius, Vice President, Asia-Pacific, BSR and Tara Norton, Director, Advisory Services, BSR

We know supply chains can have real problems that impact real lives. We’ve been reminded again of this stark reality with the recent tragic fires in the garment factories in Pakistan that led to avoidable deaths. Sadly though, these stories aren’t new, whether they took place in recent years in Bangladesh, a decade ago in China, back in 1911 in New York City, or any number of incidents in between.

But here we are, a century after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in New York, and the sad toll in Karachi, Pakistan demands that we re-appraise and rethink of the impact of the last two decades of supply chain work.  

These last twenty years have seen an explosion of social compliance auditing, in-factory capacity building, supply chain transparency, and stakeholder engagement. But has this immense expenditure of well meaning effort been worthwhile? Are the rights of workers respected? Has the environment improved? Or, will the next two decades be marked by more fires in Bangladesh, Myanmar, and the next set of emerging economies?

It’s time to start asking the difficult questions again. Buyers, suppliers, NGOs, unions, and other stakeholders now have years of educated experience to bring to the table. Today’s leading companies have responsible sourcing programs in place that are championed by top management, supported with resources and staff, and with impacts that are measured and sometimes publically reported. On one hand, these programs are enabling a maturing and differentiated marketplace of service providers, a steady convergence to standards, and a variety of assessment and capacity building tools. However, there is no denying that in spite of this development, there still exists a huge gap between the aspirations of responsible sourcing programs and the fundamental issues such as fire safety or worker rights.  

To begin with, industry practitioners and companies need to ask themselves some serious questions: Are responsible sourcing programs focusing resources and efforts to achieve the impact we want? Is risk really being identified and mitigated? What are the expectations of a buyer thinking deeply about its responsibility in this globalized world? If we could start over, would we build the current model that puts supply chain auditing central to the supply chain approach? Or, would we build something different? 

Finding answers to these questions can’t be the responsibility of one company alone. It requires an honest and renewed dialogue between business and its stakeholders in order to to recognize both risk and responsibility, and to show a willingness to ask the tough questions.

At BSR, we are seeking new solutions. We invite companies that have the vision, courage, and ability to help us create a new “dialogue for the future” as we seek to reframe the expectations for supply chain leadership. Because the next twenty years must be better than the past.

If you are interested in joining this dialogue, join us at the BSR Conference 2012 and participate in one of our sessions on challenging issues in the supply chain.