Last edited 17 Nov 2020

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The Institution of Civil Engineers Institute / association Website

Ethical sourcing

Just when firms are getting to grips with the implications of the Modern Slavery Act, questions are being asked about ethical policies and practices more broadly – and that includes our decisions on which materials to use.

The term ‘ethical sourcing’ is often used interchangeably with ‘responsible sourcing’, and while there is debate over its scope and definition, my view is that it means taking responsibility for specification decisions, and making choices that support organisations and suppliers that value and demonstrate ethical working practices. On the flip-side, unethical procurement practices carry risks to brand, reputation and potential profits – as demonstrated by past exposés in the clothing and food sectors.

Over recent years, the idea has grown in recognition in our industry. Responsible sourcing mainly considers the environmental impacts of products and materials, with some elements of social and economic factors, but I argue that ethical sourcing has a wider remit. Although the focus is largely social, there is also a strong moral imperative to ‘do the right thing’ in terms of respecting and valuing the environment.

This concept reaches far beyond the procurement function, and the challenge is clearly too large for any one organisation to tackle alone. Collaboration is key and a sector-wide response is vital. Coming up with a strategy for what we should actually do, however, is not easy. If good intentions are to be turned into better practice, high-level statements of principle do need to be translated into a plan of action, on the ground.

Derived from Silicon Valley software development, we used a hackathon format to create an ethical sourcing manifesto. We brought together two groups, who wrote and rewrote online, before meeting to agree the final version at the Royal Academy of Engineering on a hot summer’s day in 2015. The hackathon involved two cohorts – ‘Construction’ (formed from clients, contractors, designers, manufacturers, suppliers and organisations including British Land, Crossrail, Skanska, BRE and CIRIA) and ‘Critical Friends’ (a deliberately diverse and challenging set of experts in transparency and traceability, supply chains and ethics, from fashion, food and consumer retail, Fairtrade International and the Ethical Trading Initiative).

The Manifesto that emerged is designed to be provocative. It broadens the industry's area of accountability beyond responsible sourcing and procurement, which deals mainly with environmental and sustainability issues, into the fair and ethical treatment of labour and sub-contractors. We want to see people react to it, whether that’s challenging what it says or questioning their own practises – and we shall be asking companies to show their commitment by signing up to the ten pledges (even if this is a statement of aspirational intent, I’m looking forward to seeing organisations stand up for what their people believe in).

You can download the manifesto here.

This article originally appeared as ‘Manifesto for ethical sourcing: 10 pledges to create a squeaky clean industry’, published by the Institution of Civil Engineers on 29 January 2016. It was written by Professor Jacqueline Glass, Associate Dean for Enterprise in the School of Civil and Building Engineering, Loughborough University.

--The Institution of Civil Engineers

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