The link between the products consumers buy and the conditions of the workers who might grow, gather and make those products is a long and complex one. Increasingly, and perhaps prompted by some recent prominent, and critical, headlines, many manufacturers are now starting to look at their global responsibilities with a new scrutiny. Yet, progress can be maddeningly slow. In their Road to 2020 report on 600 major U.S. companies, sustainability advocates, Ceres, found that while 43 percent of the firms surveyed had defined supplier codes of conduct, only 25 percent monitored them for compliance, and only ten percent had codes referencing International Labor Organization conventions.
Some of the reason for that has been attributed to the far-reaching nature of the supply chains today’s consumerist society has created, and when the Human Rights Initiative at the University of Michigan wanted to better understand that from the retailer’s point of view, they invited Barnes & Noble College’s Vice President of General Merchandise and Store Design & Construction, Joel Friedman, to participate in their recent Global Human Rights & Labor Standards Symposium.
“This is a group that has really been at the forefront of this issue for over fifteen years,” Friedman points out, “and to be included by the Human Rights Initiative I think says a lot about their respect for Barnes & Noble College.” Designed to address the challenges of ensuring social responsibility in today’s globally-dispersed supply chains, the one-day Symposium was attended by faculty and students, along with licensees and members of labor standard committees from others schools. As part of a panel discussing industry practices on supply chain engagement, Friedman had the opportunity to discuss the role of the retailer, and some of Barnes & Noble College’s strategies for social responsibility.
Despite being the last link at the end of the supply chain, Friedman believes that retailers have a lot of leverage in supply improvements. “It’s not a story that’s often told in the context of supply chain management, but the simple truth is that if we choose not to buy it, then there isn’t going to be an order — and therefore no work for anyone to produce product,” he says. Asked about the apparent contradiction between making profits and preserving principals, Friedman explains the profitability of his store operations isn’t reliant on the ‘pile it high, sell it cheap’ model. “Rather, we want to make sure we’re making good purchasing decisions, assorting in our stores what customers want and made under the proper work conditions. These are the right decisions for the right reasons,” he says.
It’s an answer validated by the experience and retail skills of Barnes & Noble College’s buying teams in being able to recognize the needs of their customers. “You can actually reject the need to source cheaply if you can find the kinds of products customers want,” he says. Friedman points to the Back-to-School sales of Ra-Ra T-shirts, an item campus stores stock with the name of the school or mascot prominently emblazoned across the back shoulders. “Everyone wants them,” he explains, “and if a customer is compelled to want something, their buying decision becomes about desire — it’s not about pressuring our suppliers for the cheapest price anymore.”
As another example, Friedman points to Red Shirt, Barnes & Noble College’s proprietary brand. “It’s a very successful line for us. I’m proud of the fact that as our proprietary brand, the factory workers who are making this line of apparel for us are paid a living wage, fed two meals a day, and have free daycare so their children are safely cared for while they are at work.”
Auret van Heerden, former head of the Fair Labor Association, is a keen believer that the road to improving global working conditions is being charted by the actions of companies rather than by the rhetoric of governments. “By enforcing a code of conduct, applied throughout the global supply chain, regardless of ownership or control and made part of the contract, companies are able to harness their private power to deliver public good,” he stated recently.
The awarding of contracts by a powerful retailer, or multinational brand, often has much more persuasive value to a supplier than local labor laws, environmental regulations or often neglected human rights standards. And while Friedman denies that his company deliberately sets out to be a change agent or an opinion former, he does acknowledge the good that can come from the choice of products sold in their stores. “I love talking about the exhaustive discussions Barnes & Noble College has with our vendors about this topic,” he says. “The connections we make with them can be more than just a buy and sell relationship — they can be about bigger issues, such as the proper treatment and pay scale for workers. And when they are, we’ll find a way to make it work for everyone involved — throughout the supply chain.”