Distributed ethics

I was sitting in a cafe in Morpeth with a good friend. It was one of the chains of cafes that now grace our high streets and this one was on Bridge Street, a street ironically without a bridge. Any one who knows Morpeth will know which one I am referring to.

My friend Adam and I meet quite regularly but since Covid this was the first time we had met face to face in over a year. I forget how we originally met but it was work related and that took up the bulk of our conversation. Inevitably we got round to talking about cyber security, a subject that occupies a lot of my time these days.

Looking out of the window behind Adam, I saw the shops across the road and it made me think how the boundaries of businesses had changed so rapidly over the last few years. No longer can a shop define itself within its four walls. With the advent of electronic trading, its boundaries have been pushed out to the extent of its technical reach. Its footprint now extends across all of its supply chain and this has obvious connotations for security. These days a business is only as strong as the security in its weakest link, a dramatic change in the way that security needs to be addressed.

What holds true for security holds true for a business’s ethics. No longer can it define its ethical position merely by what it does as a company but rather by all companies involved in its supply chain. It’s no good to say I’m clean when you are floating in a sea of murk and mire.

The shop directly opposite the cafe is Greggs,  a nationally recognised bakery chain, that puts a huge amount of effort into its ethical position. On its website you can read The Greggs Pledge.

It states that ‘It’s our duty as a modern business to stand for more than just profit. The Greggs Pledge is our way of doing more to help people, to protect the planet, and to work with partners to change the world for the better. The Greggs Pledge includes ten commitments that focus on the challenges where we can make the biggest difference. You can read more about The Greggs Pledge here, and join us in our goal to make the world a better place by 2025 – and beyond.’

Yet you can now get Greggs delivered using Deliveroo, a company with a less than savoury reputation. Its recent flotation on the stock market was described as the ‘worst IPO in London’s history’. Apparently employee categorisation and the growing conflict over workers’ rights were key factors that led to the failure of its trading debut.

The Co-op also uses Deliveroo and the question must be asked: does this tarnish the good work that companies like Greggs are trying to do? In the eye of some people it does while for others it is not a problem. Managing supply chains to deliver raw materials and finished products to the shop must be hard enough. Trying to manage the reputational damage of every single one of your suppliers must be a nightmare.

Supply chain management isn’t directly cited in its ten commitments within the Pledge but perhaps it should be. Businesses that wish to be seen as ethical must use their influence to improve the position of those they work with.

Phil Jackman is Director of NIBE.


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