As sustainability/corporate responsibility becomes more integrated and embedded in some large companies (and in plenty of smaller ones), interesting questions are beginning to arise.
For example, I know of one major professional services firm which has recently had a request from a big multi-national client for much more detail on their sustainability policies. A friend of mine, who works there, was concerned that his company might not be quite up to scratch, when compared with the client.
This is happening more and more. It's one of the reasons for an upcoming conference.
So big suppliers of large multi-national companies are now being asked to seriously engage in both sustainability policy development, and more importantly, performance.
This is not new, but it seems to me they are now being pushed on targets and indicators, which is why companies like Produce World, (UK's biggest fruit and vegetable supplier) have responded recently in an increasingly impressive way.
But what about other firms in the big corporate supply chain? Where is this shift going next?
The Guardian today provides some detailed insight as to why ethical/sustainable policies and performance targets should be extended to other firms serving big companies.
For example, as linked to above, the public relations industry. I've blogged on this topic many times before over the years.
But it seems to me that soon it will become untenable for big, sustainably-minded companies to continue to employ PR and lobbying firms, even (or particularly) on sustainability, who act for deeply unethical clients. See the Guardian piece today for details.
I appreciate that when it comes to governments the picture is a little more complex, but just because a PR firm has 'sustainability expertise' (Like Hill & Knowlton, amongst many others, in a limited way) that doesn't mean they are ethical. Not remotely.
For example, Bell Pottinger now works for both Unilever and Sinar Mas/Asia Pulp & Paper.
Unilever (along with a swathe of other firms) has 'delisted' Sinar Mas/APP as a supplier due to their appalling forestry practices and general recalcitrance.
Yet Unilever is quite happy to hand over sustainability communications to Bell Pottinger, (why they did this is a mystery given Bell has little history in the field) whilst Bell is working, overtly, for Sinar Mas/App, doing crisis management public relations for a company that clearly has little intention of curtailing their deforestation practices.
I can see why this has happened. Companies are not yet thinking about the ethics of their PR firm as part of how they assess who they give PR contracts too.
But I'd suggest that they should, and that they will do at some point in the near future. It's logical for two reasons.
Firstly, why would a big, values-driven company like Unilever want to be supplied by clearly unethical PR firms? Companies want suppliers who share their values, after all.
Secondly, if the bigger professional services firms who supply larger companies are now being asked for their policies and performance data, the logical progression of this will be also ask other suppliers, like PR companies, in due course.
This is the point where I could suggest that a smart PR firm would clean up its act, and client list, in preparation for this shift.
The problem is, many of the larger PR and lobbying firms make a lot of their money from dodgy foreign governments seeking image rehabilitation, and companies (such as Trafigura, Sinar Mas, etc) who are not interested in sustainability.
So for PR firms, making the change would be expensive, likely require a generation change in leadership, and will depend on increasing pressure from large clients to happen.
There's an opportunity for Unilever to show further leadership in sustainability.
Switching their PR away from Bell Pottinger on ethical grounds, and announcing that they will consider ethics and sustainability in their future supplier selections for PR would be an excellent start.