It seems only weeks ago that we smug Americans were chuckling over all the news about Rupert Murdoch and the cell-phone hacking some of his reporters in the UK have done. Now, we aren’t laughing so much.
This past weekend the widely respected US public radio show “This American Life” retracted one of its most popular episodes, saying that it contained outright fabrications. The producers blamed their own faulty fact checking - and said the entertainer whose piece they excerpted had lied to them.
Worse, at least for procurement professionals dedicated to sustainability and to ensuring fair labor practices in their supply chains, the piece was on the terrible treatment of workers at one of Apple’s major suppliers in China, Foxconn. It’s not that the supplier hadn’t been violating worker-safety and other standards. It had, as numerous other reports had shown and as Apple conceded as far back as 2006. What was wrong was some of the examples the entertainer used and which the radio show repeated. The scenes the entertainer said he saw, and some of the conversations he said he had with workers, never took place.
There are several lessons from this sorry tale. One is the value of contrition. The producers, battered and bruised, took responsibility immediately when they discovered the truth. That eventually will restore their credibility. Second, there is a big difference between entertainment and real journalism. One exaggerates for effect, the other, hopefully, seeks the truth. US fans of the conservative radio-talk-show host Rush Limbaugh and the liberal comedian and television-host Bill Maher should take note.
Third, worker safety and sustainability resonate with the public. The “This American Life” episode resulted in more downloads than any other program in the show’s history. Procurement is right to press suppliers and their own corporate officers to take every step to make sure they are doing the right thing in terms of sustainability. It’s good business even in a down economy, as PIU’s Maggie Slowic blogged last week. And I think the lesson applies to worker safety too.
Apple already had warned suppliers of the consequences of not complying with worker-safety rules. CEO Tim Cook says the company will fire violators. It’s a much stronger reaction than, say, that of Coca Cola, which is gambling on the potential of additional business to get suppliers in one area to improve workers’ conditions. Only time will tell if that strategy will work. Personally, I think that Apple’s threat is exactly what’s needed. The next step is to actually follow through and get rid of suppliers who violate standards. As consultant Bill Michels CEO of ADR North America says, firing is the only way to show that companies are serious about these issues.
Plenty of companies have rigorous sustainability programs. P&G’s Supplier Environmental Sustainability Scorecard and Walmart’s Sustainability Index are only two examples (although Walmart has taken hits for its payment and treatment of its US employees). Companies should add worker safety to the lists of things they monitor.
To its credit, Apple isn’t gloating over the retraction of the public radio episode. It is continuing its efforts to audit suppliers and insist on good practices. That’s what the company should do. Every company should do the same.
Paul Teague is US contributing editor of Procurement Leaders. To subscribe to the magazine, click here.