A company develops a model of supply chain standards built for the long term.
By John Elkington
Leaving a conference in Paris on January 31, I promptly found myself in the midst of a massive political demonstration—with many streets cordoned off by menacing, black-uniformed policemen who looked very much like the “shadowtroopers” featured in later Star Wars films.
And it was raining.
Finding the nearby Metro station brimming over with excited protestors carrying huge banners, I persuaded a taxi driver to weave through a series of back routes in an attempt to escape the turmoil, en route to the Gare du Nord and a Eurostar train home to London. Then, as we crossed a bridge over the River Seine, we were halted once again, behind yet more cops. In mild despair, the driver and I agreed this really wasn’t our day—until it suddenly became clear why we had been interrupted.
Right in front of us, two immense flatbed trucks swept by along the river embankment, carrying nine huge bells. Ahead of them was an escort of motorcycle policemen, and behind there was an open-topped bus carrying cheering people. The driver suddenly whooped in recognition, telling me that the bells were to be installed in Notre Dame cathedral, a few hundred metres to our right, in celebration of its 850th anniversary.
When I got back to London, I discovered that the bells are due to be rung on March 23rd to celebrate the beginning of Holy Week, in the run-up to Easter. Four of the old bells that are being replaced dated back to 1856. I learned that they had deteriorated because they were made from inferior metals—which meant that they were out of key with the main tenor bell, Emmanuel, considered one of Europe’s finest.
The new bells apparently took a year and half to create and are expected to last up to 300 years. And that set me thinking about the social and environmental considerations the bell founders might have had to take into account around 157 years ago. If they could be projected into today’s world, they would be stunned by the standards expected of them, however holy their work might be considered.
Supply Chain Issues In The News
I had just spent the day at the annual client conference organized by sustainable supply chain firm EcoVadis, founded in 2007, and where I have been on the advisory board since the start. What had been particularly exciting about this convening was how the numbers of companies involved has grown, as supply chain issues have become ever more important to business. As a result, the team has grown in numbers from around five to nearly 100.
Indeed, over breakfast that morning, I had read the latest International Herald Tribune—and once again was amazed to see how many news stories linked back to the market challenges we were about to discuss at the EcoVadis event.
One big story explained the emergency measures the Chinese government was taking in the wake of extraordinary toxic smogs that wreathed Beijing in recent weeks. The city has been experiencing the worst pollution levels on record. Among other things, 100 factories had been closed and one-third of government vehicles ordered off the streets.
Another big story covered a court case brought against Shell by Nigerian farmers, for damage caused by oil spilled from the company’s pipelines. Then there was a major piece, at a time when guns are highly controversial, on how a couple of Americans had built guns using the latest 3-D printers.
But the biggest article of all covered the problems that Boeing has been having with its 787 Dreamliner, after a series of mishaps with lithium-ion batteries (made by Japan’s GS Yuasa) had forced the grounding of the world 787 fleet.
Alongside Apple’s recent scandals around conditions at the facilities of its Chinese supplier Foxconn Technology, all these stories underscored the growing importance of supply chain management. And that’s where the EcoVadis team comes in.
Eco Vadis Develops Platform For Supply Chain Management
They are evolving a platform where major corporations can work out how best to engage their suppliers in shrinking the adverse social and environmental impacts associated with their operations. A couple of the major firms speaking during the panel sessions noted that if they asked for information on supply chain issues internally you would likely get 15 or more Excel spreadsheets compiled by different teams, few of them compatible.
Those using the EcoVadis platform—including companies like the energy company Centrica, Johnson & Johnson, Pernod Ricard and SNCF (France’s national rail company, which among other things runs Eurostar)—stressed how important it is to get information in a consistent way, against a framework that is widely accepted, and in ways that make it easier to benchmark a given company’s performance against best (and less good) performance against competitors—and across different sectors and geographies.
The EcoVadis team is now energetically expanding the reach of its platform making it available in different languages, with German, Portuguese, Chinese and Russian in the pipeline. Another trend, EcoVadis VP Sylvain Guyoton told me, is to help client businesses draw on the social and environmental innovation bubbling up from their supply chains.
Supplying With The Long Term In Mind
I have no idea whether the Catholic Church has yet registered with EcoVadis, although I rather suspect not. But I would be surprised if the Norman and Dutch foundries that made the new bells did not go through some version of the process, involving ISO quality standards and the like.
And if the momentum I saw in the Paris client event was anything to go by, I expect these expanded notions of quality to become second nature across much of the global economy long before those nine bells ring out in 2063—while the cathedral staff below struggle to blow out the candles on Notre Dame’s 900th birthday cake.