Dark Procurement – ethics and moral dilemmas

(We're pleased to have another guest post from Dr Gordon Murray, procurement writer, academic and practitioner - see his own excellent blog here).

The tragedy of the Dhaka factory collapse, which led to the death of over 1,000 innocent factory workers, has placed some procurement strategies under a cloud. There is a dark side of procurement with moral dilemmas which recognises there is more to ethics in procurement than the CIPS code.

Those directly responsible for the supply chain management of clothes with a 'Made in Dhaka' label are faced with a question as to whether or not this is something they would want to include on their CV or LinkedIn profile. While you would not necessarily be proud of sourcing from the Dhaka factory, is buying from low price sources such a bad thing if you are the CPO and that's what achieves the organisation's strategic objectives?

If there is a perception that buying cheap clothes for retail is distasteful, is there not also an element of public service linked to making available low price clothes for those who have to 'watch every penny'?

There is another dark side of procurement; buying things which society would not necessarily celebrate. Buying some things must cause personal dilemmas for CPOs but that doesn't mean the CPO has no conscience and is a 'baddie'. The CPO must focus on delivering the best professional procurement, regardless of whether or not they agree with the policy. Arguing that poor procurement is justifiable in bad situations just doesn't add up.

There are other examples of dark procurement. For example, I found it quite bizarre when I learnt of the procurement team at a missile manufacturer seeking accreditation of their approach to environmental management. It seemed very odd to me that, when buying for the manufacture of something which will cause mass destruction, you want to be sure that you minimise environmental impact! Maybe it's not so strange but just professionalism?

Then we have the interesting position of buying ropes for the hangman. Yes, someone has to do that, as has recently been highlighted through a procurement exercise in India. You may be completely against the death penalty and even a sympathiser with some of those awaiting the death penalty for political reasons. But does it not make sense to ensure that the hangman's rope is the most fit for purpose and the most merciful? Shouldn't the best of professionalism in procurement be pursued even in such dilemmas?

Moral dilemmas and ethics work both ways too. It would be wrong for a CPO to go on a personal crusade pursuing their own political, social and religious beliefs if they do not coincide with the strategic position of their employing organisation. Wouldn't that be non-professional?

So, does professional procurement have room for a conscience? That in itself is a dilemma which doesn't appear to feature much in discussion.

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Voices (11)

  1. moses:

    Green option is the best. as a procurement officer you are principled and hence have capacity to justify yourself

  2. Mat:

    An insightful article and discussion thread. A lot hinges on the meaning of “professionalism”. My take is that I should always be human first and employee or company director second. “Professionalism” would then mean to me that I take decisions I cannot ethically support to my superior / the board, and either win them over with good argument or leave for a more ethical company. And professionalism of course also means that I’m extremely cautious about what I say about my organisation externally (though I see nothing wrong with stating the reason why I left a company).

  3. Dan:

    Recommend the green option. Point out that a green image is good for business, regardless of whether the senior management believe in it or not. The extra cost will be covered by increased revenue resulting from the improved business image.

    If there is no increased revenue, just blame it on the sales dept,

  4. bitter and twisted:

    Its a no-brainer to RECOMMEND the more expensive green option.

    As for Resigning vs Fighting, well, we can concoct scenarios all day.

  5. bitter and twisted:

    You recommend the green option. If the board don’t like it they can choose the other.

    1. Gordon Murray:

      Hi, B&T, can you just confirm that you would pay an additional £1m for something the Board don’t want, and your is view that represents professional procurement?

      1. Gordon Murray:

        Excuse the poor English in the previous reply, that should have been: Can you just confirm B&T that you would pay an additional cost of £1m for something the Board don’t want and that your view is that represents professional procurement?

  6. Gordon Murray:

    Thanks for the comments. Let me pose an additional question: The leadership of the organisation where you are the CPO has consistently demonstrated cynicism of global warming. You believe in sustainable procurement and that it will benefit society and the organisation in the long term. – the Board don’t agree. You are asked to procure a major piece of equipment. You delegate the work to your deputy. Your deputy however, is passionate about sustainability – they believe with their heart ‘green is best’ and progress a procurement which results in 2 offers, one 0.5% higher that an alternative option . The only difference between the competing bids is environmental impact. The additional cost for the environmental offer is £1m. Your deputy recommends the higher ‘green’ bid. You sympathise with your deputy but what are you going to recommend to the Board?

  7. RJ:

    Both Dan and twisted are making fair points but surely circumstances dictate how to deal with your own personal morals and ethics. I have taken a personal decision not to work in, or with, the tobacco or defence industries, for example, but both are perfectly legal areas in which to work and should not, in principle, cause an ethical dilemma for someone who has consciously chosen to work there.

    However, if I am working in a firm whose general goals and business I support, I should still stand up for the principles I believe in when dealing with specific activities. In the past I have refused to carry out threats to suppliers made by senior executives that I believed to be unethical, have recommended “fair” prices when I had evidence that the supplier’s business would be unprofitable but where we as a dominant buyer could have forced them to accept and challenged a supply market’s sourcing of products from an oppressive regime.

    Procurement has just as much of a role, maybe more so, as any other function as a whistleblower. I consider the consideration and commentary on such moral and ethical issues to be “professional procurement”. Following orders is just “buying”.

  8. bitter and twisted:

    I disagree.

    One must always try to do the Right Thing.

    Now, if your employer doesnt want to be Good, I understand perfectly that discretion is the better part of valour.

    But at least make the bastards choose consciously choose the Dark Side. Dont salve their conscience at the expense of your own.

    CPOs are supposed to have personal crusades. Thats why they are CPOs at the Big Table, rather than mere procurement managers / the CFO/COO’s bitch.

  9. Dan:

    You may not have a choice in what your organisation buys, so you just have to do it as professionally as possible. However, you do have more of a choice in what organisations you work for. If you don’t like your job, then find another one.

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