Responsibility is a learning journey not a set absolute.
As of January 2019, The Forest Trust has become Earthworm Foundation.
This is the second in a series of 5 blogs on our work with the company Maison du Monde and its work to transform its supply chain in India.
Surrounded by immense green agricultural fields, somewhere in the state of Punjab in north west India, we drive through the mist on a seemingly endless road. Suddenly a strange animal crosses the path just in front of us, something looking like a large deer. Girish, the head of TFT India, visibly excited, tells us that it is a blue bull, a wild animal roaming across the land. Sylvain jumps out of the car (one of the first times the poor bugger did so without desperately running for a toilet – the Delhi belly took its toll on him) to take a picture. It is a surreal apparition, something I would expect to see on a safari ride in a protected reserve in Africa, but farmers here allow them to freely cross their land. There is no separation, no contradiction. We are driving down the shisham supply chain in India.
India is a magical place between 2 worlds, always paradoxical, caught between an omnipresent spirituality and the harsh material reality faced by the vast majority of its people. For anyone visiting the country for the first time (and even after) it is never a comfortable ride; you never know when a blue bull or a sacred cow might jump in front of your car… So when Maison du Monde and TFT started their work together in 2010, finding a path to the roots of the lotus and identifying committed partners to change the story of the shisham supply chain seemed an impossible quest.
Alongside Fabienne, who heads CSR at MdM, Girish worked frantically for months to trace the origin of the wood and find the right partners on the ground. The great thing about Girish is his infectious laugh that brightens bumpy 8 hour car rides, but most of all – he is not the sort of person that gives up easily. Fabienne’s determination was very real as well and eventually, when one starts shining light in the darkness of the supply chain and follows their values, great individuals and organisations seem to answer the call. Positive deviants, who have the courage to follow their convictions (and yes, see a long-term interest in doing so – these are businesses made of humans), rise up. A resonance starts reverberating throughout the system with consequences often much greater than one would have ever imagined. Magic unfolds.
Unfortunately today’s mainstream way of engaging with supply chains does not allow the magic to happen. Instead of following one’s own values and leveraging relationships, we essentially turn to systems and compliance. We choose control over change. We set certification standards that everyone should comply with and we hire auditors to make sure all the boxes are ticked. We ask consumers to look for the logo and “follow the frog”. No one truly engages, no one truly asks questions: ‘what lies behind the boxes we tick’?
The first stop on the journey along MdM’s supply chain is at the factories making the beautiful, essentially handcrafted, furniture. This is one of the reasons why MdM goes to India rather than places like China for its products. The tradition of handcrafting is still very much alive here. One of these factories is run by a married couple in Jaipur who talk passionately about the importance of preserving forests and using wood wisely. The husband, an engineer by training who runs the operations, explains how his father (who himself had a plywood business in the 70s) used to tell him how trees take 20 years to grow while it takes just a couple of minutes to cut them and a few hours to transform them into furniture. While we were visiting their factory, his wife who is in charge of the products’ designs and marketing, made a drawing showing how wood was part of people’s life from cradle to grave.
Why do we trust these are not just words? Partly because Abilasha, a TFT staff member, is there, engaged, hands on deck, working with the factory staff to work on the traceability of the product, asking tough questions, giving advice, making sure learning takes place. She is both friendly and tough with the employees, and she has the power of MdM’s buyers behind her if tangible progress isn’t made. We also trust something is right because we see how the factory owner has designed products with less wood and reused small pieces, reducing both waste and cost. Her husband has created a special dryer (used to dry seasoned wood planks) using sawdust as fuel. These were not actions made because of boxes they had to tick but the result of inner commitment and practical wisdom. At the same time, the health and safety conditions of workers in the factory, while typical of the Indian context, did not match MdM’s values and so the factory is now working to improve this.
Responsibility is a learning journey not a set absolute. MdM’s direct engagement in the supply chain, using the leverage they have as buyers and with TFT’s support, means that they can build relationship with factories on these issues. They can create trust and innovation and not just control and compliance. They can work with factories genuinely ready to ask the tough questions and innovate beyond what the mainstream path would have required from them.
If on the other hand MdM had chosen the still dominant approach to supply chain sustainability, their main concern would have been to request documents from this factory in India proving that the wood in their furniture is indeed coming from legal and sustainable sources. The factory would have obtained similar “proof” from the sawmill, and the sawmill from the farmers supplying the timber. There would be no question asked beyond that, no cooperation along the supply chain to innovate, they would simply trust the certification system to make sure everyone is doing the right thing. Checklists would be made, boxes would be ticked, logos would be stuck on products, and auditors would come once a year to make sure all papers are in order. The message is clear: you shall rely on stamps, papers and systems, but not on people.
In other words, in the mainstream world of sustainability and certification, we still avoid truly engaging in the mud and dark corners of supply chains and by doing so we deny ourselves the power of magic and real transformation. It is not that we don’t need checklists and control… but if we only turn to those what we create is a spirit of compliance, which ends up choking innovation, and sadly will often breed corruption. This is what the factory owners described to us time and again: a blind race to papers, stamps, certification, leading to very little change in practice and lots of corners cut.
Practical wisdom and transformation is what emerges when one starts truly engaging in the mud of supply chains, down through the roots of the lotus. It opens possibilities of change, innovation, learning… and this was only the beginning of our journey.