Addressing human rights issues in supply chains – a university perspective

October 11, 2016 •

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By Liz Cooper
Research and Policy Manager, Department for Social Responsibility and Sustainability, University of Edinburgh

Universities buy a wide range of goods and services to enable them to fulfil their roles as places of education, research and innovation. These include construction services and supplies, furniture and stationery, electronics (computers, audio visual, etc.), food and catering supplies, travel services, laboratory supplies (equipment, chemicals, pharmaceuticals etc.), books and printing, and waste and recycling services.

A large proportion of these goods and services is bought through frameworks established by collaborative consortia. With ever-more complex supply chains involving workers and organisations globally and locally, there is recognition in the university sector that there are risks of human rights abuses in the production of goods and services we buy. As well as making high level commitments to social responsibility including in relation to the protection of human rights, universities in the UK have been considering workers’ rights in supply chains for a number of years.

Steps towards a sustainable university supply chain

One development which highlights this is the Fairtrade University movement which started in the early 2000s. The University of Edinburgh became a Fairtrade University in 2004, following a student vote, and has since made commitments to fair trade procurement, awareness-raising and research.

In 2012, the University affiliated to the Worker Rights Consortium, an independent organisation concerned with monitoring working conditions in garment manufacture.

More recently, conflict minerals and modern slavery have become key issues to try to tackle. At the University of Edinburgh, we developed a Conflict Minerals Policy, published in February 2016, which makes a public commitment to working with the sector and with business to eradicate conflict minerals from supply chains.

Throughout 2016 we have also been working on our approach to modern slavery, in light of the new UK Modern Slavery Act. We recognise the risks of modern slavery in UK and international supply chains, but also in waste and recycling, and in relation to our University’s international offices and partnerships. We held a stakeholder workshop involving all key operations, administrative and academic staff to discuss modern slavery risks, and opportunities to take further action – which has informed our Modern Slavery Statement (pending publication). We also commissioned a piece of research on modern slavery and universities, which we hope will be useful to other institutions in developing their own approaches.

Public vs private buyers

At Edinburgh, we aim to keep up to date with best practice, campaigns and legislation related to human rights issues in supply chains. However, being a publicly funded institution, our approach often differs slightly from that of a private company. Firstly, we have the advantage of being able to tap into the expertise of a few thousand academics and even more students, so we can collaborate on research projects to inform our own practices.

Secondly, public procurement legislation can be viewed as both a limitation and an opportunity. On the one hand, strict rules must be followed regarding fair competition through tendering processes, so you can’t just choose to buy from the company you deem the most ethical.

On the other hand, the new EU Procurement Directives and a regulated procurement Sustainability Duty in Scotland mean that social and environmental issues must now be considered in planning for procurement. The Scottish Government has provided a suite of tools in consultation with the university sector (including our own staff and students) to help us assess social responsibility and sustainability risks and opportunities for different commodity areas.

This has provided a great opportunity for discussion between staff from different teams, to ensure we are considering all relevant risks and opportunities, and it provides a space for conflict minerals and modern slavery considerations to be embedded throughout. The tools also allow us to clearly identify areas where we need more research, which can then be discussed with academics and students.

Leveraging influence to promote human rights

As we buy a large proportion of goods through framework agreements established by consortia, we use the results of our assessments not only to inform our own decision-making and tender processes, but to inform the types of questions asked of suppliers bidding for sector or national framework contracts.

This means that collaboration between public institutions is crucial. The most notable form of collaboration in public procurement to embed human rights considerations may be that established by Electronics Watch, of which the University of Edinburgh and some of the sector purchasing consortia are founding members. Electronics Watch works to ensure contract terms regarding transparency and human rights are included in public electronics contracts from the start. It also organises worker-based monitoring of factory conditions and shares reports with members who then ask companies to remediate any violations of human rights policies found.

For the future, we strongly hope to continue to develop such collaborations with other institutions and organisations in order to further and better tackle human rights abuses in global and local supply chains.