Achieving transparency in supply chains
Another key challenge of ESG compliance lies in the difficulty of making global supply chains transparent; of being able to track and quantify practices in the first place.
In recent years, a number of jurisdictions, including Canada and the US, have introduced measures to prevent the importation of goods manufactured using forced or child labor. This has seen major global apparel brands have their products held up at the US border until the companies in question can prove the production process was free of forced labor. US customs has since looped forced labor requirements into its trusted trader program (C-TPAT Validation). It means that for everything from coffee to sneakers, companies are required to have a documented social compliance program in place. At a minimum, that means addressing how their overseas partners ensure that the imported goods aren't mined, produced or manufactured using any forced, imprisoned or indentured labor. It requires detailed risk-based mapping, and the filing of an annual self-assessment.
“The presumption is that your product is made with forced labor – unless you can prove it doesn’t,” says Lynlee Brown, Partner, Global Trade at Ernst & Young LLP. “And that’s very difficult to do. That's a big challenge, and companies need to be ever vigilant and mindful of it.”
Given the general direction of travel of socially conscious measures, it’s safe to assume other jurisdictions will introduce similar forced labor regulation of their own. This means establishing greater transparency, further in the supply chain than ever before. It’s a hugely collaborative requirement.
“Someone needs to inform departments across the company what documents they need to keep and decide how they're going to retain for audit purposes,” says Brown. “That pulls in the sustainability team, trade compliance and legal. What can you ask vs. mandate and require of suppliers versus what can you not. Plus, the operations team, to be able to get those documents. None of that is straightforward. Nor can it be templated. It’s different and bespoke for every situation.”
This sparks a further question of responsibility: Who owns ESG, and how should they approach it?
“Should they tackle it like other initiatives such as tax reform or climate sustainability?” asks van den Eijnde. “And where do those roads converge? Trade professionals are struggling with whether they should own it, as a lot of them don't have the expertise. So, they're having to ramp up, or having to use external partners to help put everything into perspective and manage the specific risks. There has to be a collective view, but few know where that collective view happens. That's a serious challenge.”
Constant evolution in trade
The EU Green Deal and US forced labor rules are just two examples of new ESG regulations, taxes and standards. It’s safe to say there will be many more. Supply chains have been globalizing for decades, a trend that can’t be quickly reversed. And global trade is evolving all the time, with smartphones opening up more regions of the world to on-demand deliveries of consumer goods. At the same time, even lovers of convenience are demanding fairer and less impactful processes; and with the governments of the world seeking new revenue streams, many will look to link this to measures that benefit the environment and society.
As most companies still lack the knowledge, capacity or appetite to handle this rapidly escalating tax and compliance picture, an experienced third party may be required to offer cross-functional experience, helping to improve planning and manage risk across the spectrum of supply. External service providers can help structure transactions, collect the requisite data across complex value chains, and help improve communication across disparate departments, ensuring everyone’s talking the same ESG language and aligned on ESG KPIs. They can also handle the ongoing work of continuous improvement, looking downstream at not only emerging technologies and trends, but understanding the factors that are driving the current environment and what is likely to change.
The good news is that companies are getting smarter. They are now more agile, flexible and able to anticipate changes to standards and regulations. Many can be more proactive and predictive about what constitutes a taxable event. And as the global construct becomes more complex and interdependent, the cross-functional collaboration required is serving to elevate the role of tax and trade functions within organizations.
“In the last three years, I’ve seen more VPs of global customs than ever before,” says Brown. “Businesses are now much better equipped to adapt to these measures than they were four years ago. They’re better aligned and make better business decisions. From a policy perspective, they’ve become more able to handle these knee-jerk rules because they've done it before. Now it’s a case of ‘let's do it again’, rather than spinning wheels and losing productivity figuring out how to address it.”
This can-do approach is fitting. After all, while ESG measures require a radical overhaul for many businesses, they are ultimately about making better decisions, and creating better practices, for the good of the whole.
“Nobody wants harmful chemicals in the ground or children making garments in apparel factories,” says Brown. “So while it is a major challenge from a company perspective, figuring out who's going to do what and how to do it, it’s heading in a direction that’s far better for everyone.”