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Apple article highlights need for better public debate on CSR issues

It’s easy to say that a consultancy firm can’t have a real opinion about a client as they are being paid.

I can see the point people make, I’ve made it myself:

“Your view can’t be trusted because you are directly incentivised not to upset your client by the money they pay you”.

But that’s a little unfair. I know quite a few values-driven consultancies that wouldn’t work with clients unless they felt the client was serious. I take the same view. There are of course others out there too.

So Rosey Hurst of Impactt is, in my view, being rather brave in this piece on the Guardian website, entitled: “Apple is hardly a villain – it wants to raise the bar on workers’ rights“.

She attracts considerable opprobrium from Guardian readers for writing it, as one might expect. The notions of ethical consultancies and corporate responsibility are questioned by those who comment, all too predictably. Her integrity is also called into question by many who comment on the piece. She responds in mature fashion.

The article makes two key points for me:

1) Supply chain labour conditions are a very very complex beast and most companies are in denial about tackling the issues properly, or starting to. Apple is now taking the issues seriously.

2) Why do we continually hammer companies for trying to improve working conditions, when so many other companies get away scot-free in terms of public debate of their ethics?

These are not new points to many of us. But we live in the reasonable bubble of corporate sustainability.

Out there, out in the real world, we haven’t got to this level of debate yet. In fact, sometimes it feels like we’re going backwards.

So it’s about time more of these sorts of articles were published by the mainstream press.

Once we get over the ‘conflict of interest’ bit about consultants writing about clients, the real debate is about both solutions that ACTUALLY work and last, (not just audits), the business benefits of applying them (save lots of money, have better staff retention, meet/beat your H&S targets), and the companies who do little in comparison to Apple or HP.

The trouble is, we get sidetracked by the debate about consultant ethics, or outsourcing, or China in general, and fail to focus on the solutions, which have been shown to deliver, if only more companies would take them seriously.

It was a brave article to write: Apple is notoriously private and may not even like it themselves. And the Guardian’s readers have not held back.

We need more debate about the solutions that Rosey mentioned, so well done to the Guardian for running the article.

It beats their usual “big companies are all bad’ attitude on the main pages, or the ‘let’s fawn over any CEO with a sustainability plan’ on their sustainable business pages.

The biggest regret of my professional career was when we had to turn on the paywall for Ethical Corporation, which hosts 8000 odd articles like the one above. We had no choice, it was the only way to turn a profit on the publishing division of the business.

Despite the free articles we do give away, there’s now no substantive free independent critical platform on the web that allows serious and mature debate about difficult and complex corporate sustainability issues such as factory labour standards and the issues around them.

That ought to be the job of an independent think tank, funded perhaps by foundations. Anyone who wants to start one can count on my help.

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