The call for supply chain responsibility reaches ever higher heights!

Britain’s Prince Charles makes forceful case for “Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability” at meeting of the Consumer Goods Forum, an association of the world’s leading retailers…

News of the latest prosecution for forced labor in Florida’s fields — the eighth since 1997 — made hardly a ripple when it broke last week.

Only a handful of Florida papers ran short, backpage stories on the unsealing of the indictment in federal court. Florida’s agricultural industry, for its part, took no responsibility. For industry leaders, every new case of slavery comes, afresh, as its own shocking and lamentable aberration — isolated anomalies without any underlying systemic explanation. Rogue farm bosses, one and all.

And, of course, retail food companies that buy Florida produce said not a word.

But despite press indifference, and the agricultural industry’s unending claims of ignorance, the call for retailers to take real responsibility for inhumane conditions in their supply chains is rising by the day. This message found a voice in the growing alliance between farmworkers and consumers through the Campaign for Fair Food. And now echoes of that call are being heard at the highest levels of government and society, both here and across the Atlantic!

First it was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, calling out companies that turn a blind eye to slavery in their supply chains for their “reckless disregard.” This rebuke and demand for action, coming last month at the ceremony in which the CIW’s Laura Germino was recognized for her contributions to the fight against modern-day slavery, was well received. From The Nation:

“… So when the Secretary spoke these words—”It is everyone’s responsibility. Businesses that knowingly profit or exhibit reckless disregard about their supply chains…all of us have to speak out and act forcefully”—you could almost feel the chills traveling up the spines of the hundreds of activists from all over the world who packed the room. Some broke into grins, cameras flashed.” read more

Now comes news of a powerful speech given late last month by Britain’s Prince Charles at a meeting of the Consumer Goods Forum in London, an organization that “brings together the CEOs and senior management of around 650 retailers, manufacturers, service providers and other stakeholders across 70 countries,” according to the group’s website. The combined annual sales of their members totals over $2.5 trillion.

Although it is little known on this side of the ocean, Prince Charles in fact has long been active in advocating for more sustainable agricultural practices, particularly when it comes to better stewardship of the earth’s natural resources, our rainforests, water, and soil. But his vision of a truly sustainable agricultural industry goes beyond caring for natural resources. As Alice Waters told the New York Times, “He is, in private, really one of the most forward-thinking, radical humanitarians I have ever talked to.”

But if his recent speech to the world’s leading CEOs is any indication, it seems that the Prince can be pretty rousingly forward-thinking in public, too. His presentation focused primarily on the urgent environmental crisis, and used the degradation of the world’s fisheries as an example of the kind of life-and-death problems we are facing on the global level. He underscored the desperate need for action by retail companies to demand the highest standards from their suppliers if we are to avoid disaster. In short, he called for a new paradigm, one based on a genuine commitment by retail leaders that goes beyond quarterly profits and places real value on measurable ecological and humanitarian standards in their supply chains. Here is an extended excerpt:

“… This is the situation we have reached. The problem exists now. It is why I would urge you to recognize that as the suppliers of food to the world’s consumers, you simply must become stronger advocates of sustainable forms of fishing and other forms of agriculture. Without your commitment and energy, believe me, there will be no change. And “no change” is not an option…

… But for that to happen the retail and food producing sectors can no longer act with any complacency. You do not simply manage a neutral conveyor belt that moves food and consumer goods from the field and factory to the shop floor and then to the home, and your target surely cannot just be the maximising of profit. That is not to say that profit is not important. Of course it is. But it has to be achieved in a way that embraces the wider cost to the Earth. And that means a much more inclusive bottom line. The cost to the Earth and the cost to future generations must become a part of the calculation of the cost of production…

… Individually, many of you are doing remarkable things. But, dare I say it, it isn’t enough. You can be such a global force for good and I know that you are more than able to rise to the challenge. The creation of your new organization is proof that you are determined to maximize your influence. When you look back in ten years time as business leaders, surely you would want to have made a real difference to our collective future security and to your grand-children’s chances of survival? If we want to have food security for the future, then you must help to protect and enhance the severely threatened ecosystems on which we all depend.

It was John Maynard Keynes, no less, who said that “Once we allow ourselves to be disobedient to the test of an accountant’s profit, we have begun to change our civilization.” So I will end by really sticking my head above the parapet and suggesting that you consider some very serious mass disobedience!” read more

Prince Charles’ speech was a passionate call to action and truly a must-read. As Eric Schlosser said about the Prince and his commitment to sustainable food in a separate context, it’s hard to “think of any American political figure who has spoken (as) eloquently or bravely about these issues.”

The speech is also a perfect parallel to the Campaign for Fair Food’s call for urgent action to end the human rights crisis in the agricultural industry.

Labor-intensive food crops are produced, almost without exception, by exploited labor. And for the most part, this is true whether the production is conventional or organic. In the case of plantation-scale agriculture like that found here in Florida, farmworkers all too often face horrific abuses, including sub-poverty wages, systematic wage theft, sexual harassment, structural disregard for workers’ health and safety, forced and unpaid overtime, and, in the most extreme cases, modern-day slavery.

Respect for human rights must be an integral element in any meaningful definition of sustainable food, and for that definition to become a reality, the major retail purchasers of produce must use their volume purchasing power to demand fair labor standards in the fields where they buy their produce.

This won’t be easy. It will require new levels of transparency in global supply chains to allow for the accurate tracking of sustainable products and a verifiable commitment to fairness-based purchasing principles by which purchases are directed towards growers with improving labor practices and away from growers on whose farms the worst abuses are found.

But with a growing and vibrant alliance of workers, consumers and, now, more and more political leaders every day, true sustainability is possible.