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My coverage of the Sustainable Brands New Metrics Friday afternoon workshop on top global supply chain risks.

It’s Friday afternoon at New Metrics ’14, and next on the agenda is a workshop offering data-based insights and recommendations on top global supply chains risks from specialists in the field.

The conversation was co-led by Andrew Savini, Manager of Supplier Management & Audits at Intertek, and Mark Robertson, Head of Marketing & Communications at Sedex, who shared their companies’ data analyses of supply chain risks and real-world experience.

To illustrate the scope and scale of the supply chain risk ecosystem, they offered this quote from global beverage company Diageo: “At Diageo, we talk about 70,000 suppliers and third parties, spread across over 100 countries of the world. When multiplied by the number of sub-suppliers in the supply chains, you get in to hundreds of thousands of people impacted by our global supply chain, so it’s vital to prioritize the key areas.”

Starting off, they gave an overview of CSR supply chain key events in the past 10 years, from labor issues at Levi’s and the 2013 Rana Plaza disaster, to legislation, regulations, the proliferation of standards in the late 1990s, and the role of NGOs.

Data is the key to measuring progress towards responsible sourcing, they said, which they defined as the process of purchasing goods and services without causing harm to, or exploiting, humans or the natural environment.

On to risks, they shared the top 10 performance trends that audits around the world are picking up globally – fire safety, health and safety management, level of overtime hours, environment, management systems, machinery, chemicals and worker health/first aid/accidents, building/site maintenance and benefits/insurance – as well as how they look when sliced by China, Bangladesh, the United States, and by industry.

Not surprisingly, more mature industries such as food factories tend to perform better overall, due to years of scrutiny and regulations. By contrast, electronics factories have a way to go because of growth and increasing production.

A key supply chain risk is whether suppliers have controls or evaluation procedures for subcontracted work. In the case of Rana Plaza, many suppliers didn’t know their manufacturing processes were subcontracted to an over-burdened building with locked exits. Globally, audits find that 2 out of 5 suppliers do not have these controls in place, with the number being nearly 4 out of 5 in Taiwan.

A brighter story is the case of the global frequency of adequate fire-fighting equipment — only 1 out of 10 facilities fail at this measurement. This indicates that many years of codes of conduct and auditing have positively influenced fire safety practices.

They then did a deeper dive into labor issues in Cambodia, and showed how signs of the labor unrest that broke out in early 2014 could be discerned in earlier factory audits. A year before labor strikes took place, Cambodia’s overtime rate was 1.5 times more than the global average, signaling that workers were approaching a breaking point.

The conversation moved on to solutions and the case for multi-tier transparency. According to a PwC & MIT study, globally, only a third of companies are actively seeking transparency below Tier 1 in their supply chain. This is a problem because the highest risks and most issues are found deeper down (in the case of a garment’s supply chain, Tier 1 is the assembly, Tier 2 is the mill and Tier 3 is the cotton farm).

Intertek research backs up the case for companies to take on deeper levels of transparency – 40 percent of Intertek audit requests from global clients have something wrong with the audit request entity, and 70 percent of brands in a recent Intertek survey admitted their organizations would most likely lack the capability to trace back to production.

Externally, the drivers for improving supply chain risk management are compliance and traceability. The first, compliance, is fueled by regulations and legislation, investor pressure and consumer pressure. Pressure to improve traceability stems from the reality that in a connected world, issues become news in seconds.

What this means for companies is that transparency is expected, the “bare minimum” is no longer acceptable, greenwashing will be called out and criticized, and companies need to know where the next Rana Plaza could be.

The session wrapped up with their advice for what executives should keep top of mind.

Robertson said that sustainability leaders are looking to “not just meet regulatory requirements but go beyond compliance. That starts with protecting workers and doing more around benefits [such a providing a living wage] or training.”

As well, forward-looking companies are harnessing the power of Big Data from government datasets and news sources, expanding traceability beyond Tier 1 and forming collaborations with NGOs and other business leaders.

Here’s my latest trend piece for Sustainable Brands.

February 14, 2014

Leaders Now Seeing Climate Change as Risk That Can Be Managed, Not Uncertainty That Can’t (New for Sustainable Brands)

Last month, a front-page New York Times story reported that global business leaders Coca-Cola, Nike, and others are factoring in climate change risks as threats to the bottom line. This news followed CDP’s December reveal that 29 major companies use a shadow carbon price in their finances for climate risk evaluation.

What do these stories have in common? Risk.

I’ve noticed a decisive pivot in business conversations about climate change impacts from uncertainty — as just cause for delay or inaction — to a core business competency: managing risk. For forward-looking companies, this pivot may signal a tipping point from academic discussion to business action that they can use to their advantage.

Simply put, this change moves the conversation from: “What if we’re wrong about potential climate change-fueled catastrophes?” to “What if we’re right? What do we stand to lose, and how can we manage those risks?”

As an example of how this conversation has shifted, look at how Talking Climate’s Adam Corner explored uncertainty versus risk as an academic finding in November 2012. Compare that to his forceful Jan. 31 Guardian piece calling for the framing of risk over uncertainty as a business imperative.

While this idea may be familiar to SB readers, it’s worth noting how fast and far the “risk rather than uncertainty” message is spreading to broader business audiences — and who is delivering the message.

Forward-thinking business leaders and influencers can leverage this momentum for action within their organizations, and with industry peers, supply chain partners, customers, government and civil society allies.

Here are 11 notable recent instances in which business conversations about climate-change impacts center on risk:

Sept. 9, 2013: Harvard Business School’s “Working Knowledge” site reports on shifting the debate about climate change from a political discussion to a practical conversation about risk and reward.

Oct. 3, 2013: Financiers Michael Bloomberg, Hank Paulson and Tom Steyer announce their year-long “Risky Business” initiative to measure U.S. economic risks from climate change impacts.

Oct. 24, 2013: Investors ask oil, coal and power companies for climate risk information.

Dec. 6, 2013: Climate scientist Tamsin Edwards reports her findings from a meeting called “Communicating Risk and Uncertainty around Climate Change.”

Jan 15: Ceres hosts the Climate Risk Investor Summit with 500 global financial leaders.

Jan. 23: Sustainability thought leader Bob Willard posts “Unleashing 3 Risk Arguments in the Climate Debate” article

Jan. 24: At the Davos World Economic Forum, World Bank president Jim Yong Kim calls for carbon pricing and climate risk disclosure by government, businesses and NGOs

Jan. 30: Citing fiduciary duty, 17 philanthropic groups pledge divestment from fossil fuels and investment in clean-energy technologies as a “prudent response to climate risks.”

Jan. 31: Bloomberg starts his new job as United Nations special envoy to help cities around the world prepare for climate-change risks.

Feb. 5: White House announces “climate hubs” to help farmers and rural communities respond to climate risk.

Feb. 7: A new Ceres report shows more companies reporting climate risk to CDP than to the SEC.

The scientific consensus on human-caused global climate change hasn’t changed that much in the past 10 years. In that time, there’s been very little climate action overall. But now that’s clearly changing.

It’s been said that, “When we change how we look at things, the things we look at change.” I’m encouraged that global leaders in business, finance, government and behavioral economics are shifting to talking about climate-change impacts as business risks that can be managed rather than uncertainty that can’t.

This is a powerful mindset we can use to help achieve broad, global sustainability gains at every level.

I wear my PFD every time I kayak.

That’s Personal Flotation Device, more commonly known as a lifejacket.

Even though I am an experienced kayaker. Even in calm water. .

For lots of reasons. It sets a good example for the rest of the kayaking community.

Two, my PFD has pockets for gear and snacks.

Third, if I become unconscious, the PFD will help keep my head above water.

But mostly, I wear it because if an accident happens, I won’t have time to put it on. By definition, accidents are unexpected events.

So I take prudent steps to reduce my risk of personal injury and death. (Sadly, people die every year while kayaking.)

And honestly, I can’t afford not to wear it. My own health aside, I have a family and friends to think about.

On the flipside, I don’t worry or spend money planning for highly unlikely, rare possibilities. You’d never launch if you did.

Which is why, given my bent, I find Jared Diamond’s New York Times essay on risk and personal decision-making such a good read. Daily life has risks. Humans are famously bad at knowing which ones are likely and which aren’t.

Via nytimes.com:

That Daily Shower Can Be a Killer

Studies have compared Americans’ perceived ranking of dangers with the rankings of real dangers, measured either by actual accident figures or by estimated numbers of averted accidents. It turns out that we exaggerate the risks of events that are beyond our control, that cause many deaths at once or that kill in spectacular ways — crazy gunmen, terrorists, plane crashes, nuclear radiation, genetically modified crops.

At the same time, we underestimate the risks of events that we can control (“That would never happen to me — I’m careful”) and of events that kill just one person in a mundane way.

This nexus of risk assessment and personal decision making plays out everywhere. And not just in personal, individual choices.

Public policy essentially boils down to: How much money are we willing to spend, to manage which risks, to protect and benefit which people?

As a simple example, children walking to school. You need sidewalks in good conditions. Crossing guards assigned to key intersections. Buddy systems. Driver awareness campaigns. Street signs in school zones. Altogether, at some cost to the community, these steps mitigate much potential risk and support healthy walking habits. The benefits outweigh the risks, at a cost that is deemed acceptable and appropriate.

Which brings me to thinking about the risk conversation in the larger world.

At what point (how about now?) will enough people be willing to have conversations about appropriately acting on risks from climate change?

Perhaps once they get over the unrealistic fear of what they will have to give up.

But that’s a false assumption. Being cautious in the shower doesn’t mean Mr. Diamond no longer travels.

Likewise, wearing a PFD does not make my world smaller. In fact, being realistic about risks and planning for what is in my control makes my world larger. It’s so worth it to be able to paddle farther because I’m aware and prepared.

I’m interested in being part of the conversation that shows how climate change action is worth it too. For all the positive benefits: clear air, safe water, nutritious food, prosperous economics, connected communities.

Considering what we have to lose, we can’t afford not to.