Solar power is among the biggest priorities of the global sustainability movement. In March, Bill Gates-backed Heliogen announced the first solar-powered mine in the United States. On Earth Day, Greta Thunberg testified to Congress about the dangers of the fossil fuel industry.
But if you knew the solar panels you were about to install on your house or company headquarters were made with slave labor, would you still buy them? At what point does it become okay to overlook human rights in the name of a more sustainable planet? What’s an acceptable number of exploited workers? 1,000? 100? Do we really need to choose between people and planet?
About half the world’s supply of polysilicon, a key ingredient in making solar panels, can be plausibly traced back to internment camps in Xinjiang, China holding more than a million Uyghurs, a Muslim minority group. But we don’t actually have to choose between sustainability and human rights. We just need more transparency in our supply chains.
Supply chain ethics needs to become part of our everyday dialogue. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, the arc of the moral universe is long, but it does in actuality bend toward justice. It’s just that once in a while, the invisible hand of the market needs to reach up and grab that arc to bend it a few degrees. The market can fix problems like this, if we help it.
South Korea, for example, is ramping up ethical production of solar panels in response to the abuses in Xinjiang. It has even taken innovation a step further by creating transparent panels that look like windows.
Many of the 40 million people estimated to be living in forced labor conditions around the world are children. There are a lot of hashtags floating around social media around President Biden’s plan to “Build Back Better.” But we’re going to need to #buildbackdifferent if we want to protect kids like the 44 trafficked children locked in a jewelry factory in India before they were rescued by the International Justice Mission in September. The pandemic has eroded years of advances against extreme poverty and child labor. In April, UNICEF warned that 800 million children were still not back in school, with many being sent to work instead.
We need a movement for transparency in supply chains. According to a 2018 survey, only 6% of chief procurement officers claimed to have full transparency of their supply chains. As the management axiom goes, “you can’t manage what you can’t measure.”
The supply chain ethos needs to be transformed from efficiency and low-cost country sourcing to resilience and visibility. It’s not crazy to think that with the amount of data in circulation today, everything in the world that can be bought — from airplanes to apricot trees to cobalt — can be traced back to the people who built, grew or mined them, and the conditions in which they live and work. The technology exists; it’s just a matter of how many people want to know about it.
To create responsible supply chains, the market has to demand it. “It all comes down to economics,” said John Leonard, U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s top trade enforcement official, who also oversees its efforts to combat forced labor. If the market demands change, companies and suppliers who want to profit will respond. The new corporate social responsibility has to include supply trade ethics.
The U.S. is the largest consumer market on earth; the average American home has 300,000 items. Only 3% of the world’s kids live in the U.S., but we consume 40% of the world’s toys. And the average U.S. home has more televisions than people. Seeing this as another sad statistic misses the point, however. Buying power is power to change. Leveraging our buying power to build back better, or different, is the smartest post-pandemic shift we can make.
That’s why the market demand doesn't start with the American consumer. Americans don’t have a choice in the marketplace, because fewer than 6% of companies have transparent supply chains. We need a movement for supply chain transparency. That doesn’t just mean zero-tolerance policies or buyers asking suppliers if they use slave labor. Instead, companies need to invest in building transparent and resilient supply chains. The competitive advantage of bad actors in our supply chains is their invisibility.
Investors, companies and governments around the world are starting to take a stand against abuses in China, and in time we’ll see the great impact of this action. But we’ve only just skimmed the surface of what’s possible. The time has come to buy better.
Justin Dillon is founder and chief executive officer of FRDM, a provider of supply chain mapping technology for companies and governments.
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