Guaranteeing the best possible environmental and social stewardship of key commodities in the supply chain is a complicated business. It is the reality we face in trying to influence practices and deliver positive change. And we’ve learnt one very important lesson, collaboration is vital and the only approach that we believe will help us achieve our Plan A goals.
It’s worth considering the issues ‘wrapped up’ in the word ‘reality’. Starting with the underlying global issue at stake here: how best to use the finite land resources available on earth. We humans must find the right balance between land used to produce food, fuel, clothing and homes, land for habitation, and land set aside to preserve earth’s natural balance. We must also get the best possible value from land we use to produce raw materials - the highest possible outputs from the lowest inputs. Minimal water and energy use, minimal waste, minimal disruption to people and nature.
This is inextricable linked to our need to secure supply, and isn’t made any easier by the global shift from a ‘buyers’ to a ‘suppliers’ market as demand begins to outstrip supply. We’re a familiar brand on UK high streets, but soy growers in Brazil have probably never heard of us. So why should they follow our advice on sustainability best practice?
In addition, the supply chains for some commodities - wood, palm oil, soy and cocoa - are generally long and complicated. Wood is particularly challenging, and critical, because we use it in so many ways - as the primary raw material in ‘wooden’ products, but also in close to a thousand other products and components in our stores and across our business. To give just one example, the wood pulp in a standard packet of office paper will contain wood from many different species and sources, which has been mixed and blended along the supply chain.
The scale of information that we have to manage is huge. On wood alone, we have data submissions from over 300 suppliers, which is over 6,000 lines of data and requires over 2,000 chain of custody claim checks.
So, how do we address a long list of critical questions: is the land on which commodities are grown legally owned? Have indigenous peoples’ rights been respected and have they given ‘free prior and informed consent’ for land use? Have the environmental and social impacts of a change in land use been measured and managed? Are any pesticides or chemicals being used effectively? Are farm and factory workers treated and rewarded fairly?
In an ideal world we would intervene at ‘source’ - but in reality as explained, this isn’t always possible. This is why we believe collaboration is the way forward.
Active collaboration with trusted partners and participation in respected independent multi-stakeholder standards, give us the best opportunity to influence standards. This is why we support and work with FSC for wood, RSPO for palm oil, RTRS for soy, and other reputable bodies. Though not perfect, these organisations allow us to specify and up to a point, guarantee standards, despite our inability to directly intervene in every relationship along the supply chain.
These standards also bring together stakeholders, including retailers, processors, traders, manufacturers, NGOs and growers who might otherwise never discuss issues collectively. We believe they provide an effective way to step up our influence on the market and to build consensus around a truly sustainable approach to the way we source commodities in future.
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